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Author of Varied Types, Heretics, Etc. 





7 Wo Oouict Hecefvec) 

SEP L'4 190 J 

Copyright, 1906, by 

First Edition Published in Septtmber^ igo6 





















Much of our modern difficulty, in religion and 
other things, arises merely from this, that we 
confuse the word " indefinable '' with the word 
" vague." If some one speaks of a spiritual fact 
as " indefinable " we promptly picture something 
misty, a cloud with indeterminate edges. But this 
is an error even in common-place logic. The 
thing that cannot be defined is the first thing; the 
primary fact. It Is our arms and legs, our pots 
and pans, that are Indefinable. The indefinable 
is the indisputable. The man next door Is inde- 
finable, because he is too actual to be defined. 
And there are some to whom spiritual things have 
the same fierce and practical proximity; some to 
whom God Is too actual to be defined. 

But there is a third class of primary terms. 
There are popular expressions which every one 
uses and no one can explain; which the wise man 
will accept and reverence, as he reverences desire 
or darkness or any elemental thing. The prigs 
of the debating club will demand that he should 



define his terms. And being a wise man he will 
flatly refuse. This first inexplicable term Is the 
most important term of all. The word that has 
no definition Is the word that has no substitute. If 
a man falls back again and again on some such 
word as " vulgar " or *' manly " do not suppose 
that the word means nothing because he cannot 
say what it means. If he could say what the word 
means he would say what it means Instead of 
saying the word. When the Game Chicken (that 
fine thinker) kept on saying to Mr. Toots, " It's 
mean. That's what it is — it's mean," he was 
using language in the wisest possible way. For 
what else could he say? There is no word for 
mean except mean. A man must be very mean 
himself before he comes to defining meanness. 
Precisely because the word is indefinable, the word 
Is Indispensable. 

In everyday talk, or In any of our journals, we 
may find the loose but important phrase, " Why 
have we no great men to-day? Why have we 
no great men like Thackeray, or Carlyle, or 
Dickens? " Do not let us dismiss this expression, 
because It appears loose or arbitrary. " Great " 
does mean something, and the test of its actuality 
is to be found by noting how instinctively and 
decisively we do apply it to some men and not to 



others; above all how Instinctively and decisively 
we do apply It to four or five men In the Victorian 
era, four or five men of whom Dickens was not 
the least. The term is found to fit a definite thing. 
Whatever the word " great " means, Dickens was 
what It means. Even the fastidious and unhappy 
who cannot read his books without a continuous 
critical exasperation, would use the word of him 
without stopping to think. They feel that Dickens 
Is a great writer even if he is not a good writer. 
He IS treated as a classic; that Is, as a king who 
may now be deserted, but who cannot now be 
dethroned. The atmosphere of this word clings 
to him; and the curious thing Is that we cannot 
get It to cling to any of the men of our own 
generation. " Great '^ Is the first adjective which 
the most supercilious modern critic would apply 
to Dickens. And " great " Is the last adjective 
that the most supercilious modern critic would 
apply to himself. We dare not claim to be great 
men, even when we claim to be superior to them. 
Is there, then, any vital meaning In this Idea of 
" greatness *' or In our laments over Its absence In 
our own time? Some people say, Indeed, that 
this sense of mass Is but a mirage of distance, and 
that men always think dead men great and live 
men small. They seem to think that the law of 



perspective in the mental world is the precise oppo- 
site to the law of perspective in the physical world. 
They think that figures grow larger as they walk 
away. But this theory cannot be made to corre- 
spond with the facts. We do not lack great men 
in our own day because we decline to look for 
them in our own day; on the contrary, we are 
looking for them all day long. We are not, as a 
matter of fact, mere examples of those who stone 
the prophets and leave it to their posterity to 
build their sepulchres. If the world would only 
produce our perfect prophet, solemn, searching, 
universal, nothing would give us keener pleasure 
than to build his sepulchre. In our eagerness we 
might even bury him alive. Nor is it true that 
the great men of the Victorian era were not called 
great in their own time. By many they were 
called great from the first. Charlotte Bronte 
held this heroic language about Thackeray. Rus- 
kin held it about Carlyle. A definite school re- 
garded Dickens as a great man from the first days 
of his fame: Dickens certainly belonged to this 

In reply to this question, " Why have we no 
great men to-day? " many modern explanations 
are offered. Advertisement, cigarette-smoking, 
the decay of religion, the decay of agriculture, too 



much humanltarianism, too little humanitananism, 
the fact that people are educated Insufficiently, the 
fact that they are educated at all, all these are 
reasons given. If I give my own explanation, It 
Is not for Its Intrinsic value; It Is because my an- 
swer to the question, " Why have we no great 
men? " Is a short way of stating the deepest and 
most catastrophic difference between the age In 
which we live and the early nineteenth century; 
the age under the shadow of the French Revolu- 
tion, the age In which Dickens was born. 

The soundest of the Dickens critics, a man of 
genius, Mr. George GIssIng, opens his criticism by 
remarking that the world In which Dickens grew 
up was a hard and cruel world. He notes Its gross 
feeding. Its fierce sports. Its fighting and foul 
humour, and all this he summarizes In the words 
hard and cruel. It Is curious how different are the 
Impressions of men. To me this old English 
world seems Infinitely less hard and cruel than the 
world described In GIssIng's own novels. Coarse 
external customs are merely relative, and easily 
assimilated. A man soon learnt to harden his 
hands and harden his head. Faced with the world 
of GIssIng, he can do little but harden his heart. 
But the fundamental difference between the begin- 
ning of the nineteenth century and the end of It 



is a difference simple but enormous. The first 
period was full of evil things, but It was full of 
hope. The second period, the fin de Steele, was 
even full (In some sense) of good things. But 
It was occupied In asking what was the good of 
good things. Joy Itself became joyless; and the 
fighting of Cobbett was happier than the feasting 
of Walter Pater. The men of Cobbett's day were 
sturdy enough to endure and Inflict brutality; but 
they were also sturdy enough to alter It. This 
" hard and cruel '' age was, after all, the age of re- 
form. The gibbet stood up black above them; 
but It was black against the dawn. 

This dawn, against which the gibbet and all the 
old cruelties stood out so black and clear, was the 
developing Idea of liberalism, the French Revo- 
lution. It was a clear and a happy philosophy. 
And only against such philosophies do evils appear 
evident at all. The optimist Is a better reformer 
than the pessimist; and the man who believes life 
to be excellent Is the man who alters It most. It 
seems a paradox, yet the reason of It Is very plain. 
The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only 
the optimist can be surprised at it. From the 
reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He 
must have the faculty of a violent and virgin 
astonishment. It is not enough that he should 



think Injustice distressing; he must think injustice 
absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for 
tears than for a shattering laughter. On the other 
hand, the pessimists at the end of the century 
could hardly curse even the blackest thing; for 
they could hardly see it against its black and eter- 
nal background. Nothing was bad, because every- 
thing was bad. Life in prison was infamous — 
like life anywhere else. The fires of persecution 
were vile — like the stars. We perpetually find 
this paradox of a contented discontent. Dr. John- 
son takes too sad a view of humanity, but he is 
also too satisfied a Conservative. Rousseau takes 
too rosy a view of humanity, but he causes a revo- 
lution. Swift is angry, but a Tory. Shelley is 
happy, and a rebel. Dickens, the optimist, sati- 
rizes the Fleet, and the Fleet is gone. Gissing, 
the pessimist, satirizes Suburbia, and Suburbia re- 

Mr. Gissing's error, then, about the early Dick- 
ens period we may put thus: In calling it hard 
and cruel he omits the wind of hope and humanity 
that was blowing through it. It may have been 
full of inhuman institutions, but It was full of 
humanitarian people. And this humanitarianism 
was very much the better (In my view) because It 
was a rough and even rowdy humanitarianism. 



It was free from all the faults that cling to the 
name. It was, if you will, a coarse humanitarian- 
ism. It was a shouting, fighting, drinking philan- 
thropy — a noble thing. But, in any case, this 
atmosphere was the atmosphere of the Revolution ; 
and its main idea was the idea of human equality. 
I am not concerned here to defend the egalitarian 
idea against the solemn and babyish attacks made 
upon it by the rich and learned of to-day. I am 
merely concerned to state one of its practical con- 
sequences. One of the actual and certain conse- 
quences of the Idea that all men are equal is Imme- 
diately to produce very great men. I would say 
superior men, only that the hero thinks of him- 
self as great, but not as superior. This has been 
hidden from us of late by a foolish worship of 
sinister and exceptional men, men without com- 
radeship, or any infectious virtue. This type of 
Caesar does exist. There Is a great man who 
makes every man feel small. But the real great 
man Is the man who makes every man feel great. 
The spirit of the early century produced great 
men, because It believed that men were great. It 
made strong men by encouraging weak men. Its 
education, its public habits, its rhetoric, were all 
addressed towards encouraging the greatness in 
everybody. And by encouraging the greatness In 


everybody, It naturally encouraged superlative 
greatness In some. Superiority came out of the 
high rapture of equality. It Is precisely in this 
sort of passionate unconsciousness and bewildering 
community of thought that men do become more 
than themselves. No man by taking thought can 
add one cubit to his stature; but a man may add 
many cubits to his stature by not taking thought. 
The best men of the Revolution were simply com- 
mon men at their best. This Is why our age can 
never understand Napoleon. Because he was 
something great and triumphant, we suppose that 
he must have been something extraordinary, some- 
thing inhuman. Some say he was the Devil; some 
say he was the Superhuman. Was he a very, very 
bad man? Was he a good man with some greater 
moral code ? We strive In vain to Invent the mys- 
teries behind that Immortal mask of brass. The 
modern world with all its subtleness will never 
guess his strange secret ; for his strange secret was 
that he was very like other people. 

And almost without exception all the great men 
have come out of this atmosphere of equality. 
Great men may make despotisms ; but democracies 
make great men. The other main factory of heroes 
besides a revolution Is a religion. And a religion 
again, Is a thing which, by Its nature, does not 




think of men as more or less valuable, but of men 
as all Intensely and painfully valuable, a democracy 
of eternal danger. For religion all men are equal, 
as all pennies are equal, because the only value 
in any of them Is that they bear the Image of the 
King. This fact has been quite Insufficiently 
observed In the study of religious heroes. Piety 
produces Intellectual greatness precisely because 
piety in Itself is quite Indifferent to Intellectual 
greatness. The strength of Cromwell was that 
he cared for religion. But the strength of religion 
was that It did not care for Cromwell ; did not care 
for him, that Is, any more than for anybody else. 
He and his footman were equally welcomed to 
warm places In the hospitality of hell. It has 
often been said, very truly, that religion Is the 
thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraor- 
dinary; It Is an equally Important truth that re- 
ligion Is the thing that makes the extraordinary 
man feel ordinary. 

Carlyle killed the heroes; there have been none 
since his time. He killed the heroic (which he 
sincerely loved) by forcing upon each man this 
question: "Am I strong or weak?" To which 
the answer from any honest man whatever (yes, 
from Caesar or Bismarck) would certainly be 
" weak." He asked for candidates for a definite 



aristocracy, for men who should hold themselves 
consciously above their fellows. He advertised 
for them, so to speak; he promised them glory; 
he promised them omnipotence. They have not 
appeared yet. They never will. For the real 
heroes of whom he wrote had appeared out of an 
ecstacy of the ordinary. I have already Instanced 
such a case as Cromwell. But there Is no need to 
go through all the great men of Carlyle. Carlyle 
himself was as great as any of them; and if ever 
there was a typical child of the French Revolution, 
it was he. He began with the wildest hopes from 
the Reform Bill, and although he soured after- 
wards, he had been made and moulded by those 
hopes. He was disappointed with Equality; but 
Equality was not disappointed with him. Equality 
Is justified of all her children. 

But we. In the post-Carlylean period, have 
become fastidious about great men. Every man 
examines himself, every man examines his neigh- 
bours, to see whether they or he quite come up 
to the exact line of greatness. The answer is, 
naturally, " No." And many a man calls himself 
contentedly " a minor poet " who would then have 
been Inspired to be a major prophet. We are hard 
to please and of little faith. We can hardly be- 
lieve that there is such a thing as a great man. 



They could hardly believe there was such a thing 
as a small one. But we are always praying that 
our eyes may behold greatness, Instead of praying 
that our hearts may be filled with It. Thus, for 
Instance, the Liberal party (to which I belong) 
was, In Its period of exile, always saying, " O for 
a Gladstone ! '* and such things. We were always 
asking that It might be strengthened from above, 
Instead of ourselves strengthening It from below, 
with our hope and our anger and our youth. 
Every man was waiting for a leader. Every man 
ought to be waiting for a chance to lead. If a 
god does come upon the earth, he will descend at 
the sight of the brave. Our protestations and lit- 
anies are of no avail ; our new moons and our sab- 
baths are an abomination. The great man will 
come when all of us are feeling great, not when 
all of us are feeling small. He will ride in at some 
splendid moment when we all feel that we could 
do without him. 

We are then able to answer In some manner 
the question, "Why have we no great men?" 
We have no great men chiefly because we are al- 
ways looking for them. We are connoisseurs of 
greatness, and connoisseurs can never be great; 
we are fastidious, that Is, we are small. When 
Diogenes went about with a lantern looking for 




an honest man, I am afraid he had very little time 
to be honest himself. And when anybody goes 
about on his hands and knees looking for a great 
man to worship, he Is making sure that one man 
at any rate shall not be great. Now, the error of 
Diogenes is evident. The error of Diogenes lay 
In the fact that he omitted to notice that every man 
Is both an honest man and a dishonest man. 
Diogenes looked for his honest man Inside every 
crypt and cavern ; but he never thought of looking 
inside the thief. And that is where the Founder 
of Christianity found the honest man; He found 
him on a gibbet and promised him Paradise. Just 
as Christianity looked for the honest man Inside 
the thief, democracy looked for the wise man 
Inside the fool. It encouraged the fool to be 
wise. We can call this thing sometimes optimism, 
sometimes equality; the nearest name for it Is en- 
couragement. It had Its exaggerations — failure to 
understand original sin, notions that education 
would make all men good, the childlike yet pedan- 
tic philosophies of human perfectibility. But the 
whole was full of a faith in the Infinity of human 
souls, which is in Itself not only Christian but 
orthodox; and this we have lost amid the limita- 
tions of a pessimistic science. Christianity said 
that any man could be a saint If he chose; democ- 



racy, that any man could be a citizen If he chose. 
The note of the last few decades In art and ethics 
has been that a man Is stamped with an irrevocable 
psychology, and Is cramped for perpetuity In the 
prison of his skull. It was a world that expected 
everything of everybody. It was a world that en- 
couraged anybody to be anything. And In Eng- 
land and literature Its living expression was 

We shall consider Dickens In many other ca- 
pacities, but let us put this one first. He was the 
voice In England of this humane intoxication and 
expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be any- 
thing. His best books are a carnival of liberty, 
and there Is more of the real spirit of the French 
Revolution In " Nicholas Nickleby " than In *' The 
Tale of Two Cities." His work has the great 
glory of the Revolution, the bidding of every man 
to be himself; It has also the revolutionary defi- 
ciency; it seems to think that this mere emancipa- 
tion is enough. No man encouraged his characters 
so much as Dickens. " I am an affectionate 
father," he says, " to every child of my fancy." 
He was not only an affectionate father, he was an 
everindulgent father. The children of his fancy 
are spoilt children. They shake the house like 
heavy and shouting schoolboys; they smash the 


story to pieces like so much furniture. When we 
moderns write stories our characters are better con- 
trolled. But, alas ! our characters are rather easier 
to control. We are in no danger from the gigantic 
gambols of creatures like Mantalini and Micaw- 
ber. We are in no danger of giving our readers 
too much Weller or Wegg. We have not got it 
to give. When we experience the ungovernable 
sense of life which goes along with the old Dickens 
sense of liberty, we experience the best of the 
revolution. We are filled with the first of all 
democratic doctrines, that all men are interesting; 
Dickens tried to make some of his people appear 
dull people, but he could not keep them dull. He 
could not make a monotonous man. The bores in 
his books are brighter than the wits in other books. 

I have put this position first for a defined rea- 
son. It Is useless for us to attempt to imagine 
Dickens and his life unless we are able at least 
to Imagine this old atmosphere of a democratic 
optimism — a confidence in common men. Dickens 
depends upon such a comprehension in a rather 
unusual manner, a manner worth explanation, or 
at least remark. 

The disadvantage under which Dickens has 
fallen, both as an artist and a moralist, Is very 
plain. His misfortune Is that neither of the two 



last movements In literary criticism has done him 
any good. He has suffered alike from his enemies, 
and from the enemies of his enemies. The facts 
to which I refer are familiar. When the world 
first awoke from the mere hypnotism of Dickens, 
from the direct tyranny of his temperament, there 
was, of course, a reaction. At the head of It came 
the Realists, with their documents, like Miss Fllte. 
They declared that scenes and types In Dickens 
were wholly Impossible (In which they were per- 
fectly right), and on this rather paradoxical 
ground objected to them as literature. They were 
not " like life," and there, they thought, was an 
end of the matter. The Realist for a time pre- 
vailed. But Realists did not enjoy their victory 
(If they enjoyed anything) very long. A more 
symbolic school of criticism soon arose. Men saw 
that it was necessary to give a much deeper and 
more delicate meaning to the expression " like 
life." Streets are not life, cities and civilizations 
are not life, faces even and voices are not life 
itself. Life is within, and no man hath seen it 
at any time. As for our meals, and our manners, 
and our daily dress, these are things exactly like 
sonnets; they are random symbols of the soul. 
One man tries to express himself In books, an- 
other In boots; both probably fail. Our solid 



houses and square meals are In the strict sense 
fiction. They are things made up to typify our 
thoughts. The coat a man wears may be wholly 
fictitious ; the movement of his hands may be quite 
unlike life. 

This much the intelligence of men soon per- 
ceived. And by this much Dickens's fame should 
have greatly profited. For Dickens Is " like life " 
In the truer sense, In the sense that he Is akin to 
the living principle in us and in the universe ; he Is 
like life, at least in this detail, that he is alive. 
His art Is like life, because, like life, It cares for 
nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoic- 
ing. Both produce monsters with a kind of care- 
lessness, like enormous by-products; life producing 
the rhinoceros, and art Mr. Bunsby. Art Indeed 
copies life In not copying life, for life copies noth- 
ing. Dickens's art Is like life because, like life, 
it is Irresponsible, because, like life, It Is Incredible. 

Yet the return of this realization has not greatly 
profited Dickens, the return of romance has been 
almost useless to this great romantic. He has 
gained as little from the fall of the Realists as 
from their triumph; there has been a revolution, 
there has been a counter revolution, there has been 
no restoration. And the reason of this brings us 
back to that atmosphere of popular optimism of 



which I spoke. And the shortest way of express- 
ing the more recent neglect of Dickens is to say 
that for our time and taste he exaggerates the 
wrong thing. 

Exaggeration is the definition of Art. That both 
Dickens and the moderns understood Art is, in its 
inmost nature, fantastic. Time brings queer re- 
venges, and while the Realists were yet hving, the 
art of Dickens was justified by Aubrey Beardsley. 
But men like Aubrey Beardsley were allowed to 
be fantastic, because the mood which they over- 
strained and overstated was a mood which their 
period understood. Dickens overstrains and over- 
states a mood our period does not understand. 
The truth he exaggerates is exactly this old Revo- 
lution sense of infinite opportunity and boisterous 
brotherhood. And we resent his undue sense of 
it, because we ourselves have not even a due sense 
of It. We feel troubled with too much where we 
have too little; we wish he would keep it within 
bounds. For we are all exact and scientific on the 
subjects we do not care about. We all immediately 
detect exaggeration in an exposition of Mormon- 
ism or a patriotic speech from Paraguay. We all 
require sobriety on the subject of the sea serpent. 
But the moment we begin to believe a thing our- 
selves, that moment we begin easily to overstate 



it; and the moment our souls become serious, our 
words become a little wild. And certain moderns 
are thus placed towards exaggeration. They per- 
mit any writer to emphasize doubts, for instance, 
for doubts are their religion, but they permit no 
man to emphasize dogmas. If a man be the mild- 
est Christian, they smell " cant ''; but he can be a 
raving windmill of pessimism, and they call it 
" temperament." If a moralist paints a wild pict- 
ure of immorality, they doubt its truth, they say 
that devils are not so black as they are painted. 
But if a pessimist paints a wild picture of melan- 
choly, they accept the whole horrible psychology, 
and they never ask if devils are as blue as they are 

It is evident, in short, why even those who ad- 
mire exaggeration do not admire Dickens. He 
is exaggerating the wrong thing. They know what 
It is to feel a sadness so strange and deep that only 
impossible characters can express it: they do not 
know what it is to feel a joy so vital and vio- 
] lent that only impossible characters can express 
that. They know that the soul can be so 
' sad as to dream naturally of the blue faces 
I of the corpses of Baudelaire : they do not know 
that the soul can be so cheerful as to dream 
naturally of the blue face of Major Bagstock. 



They know that there Is a point of depression at 
which one believes In TIntaglles : they do not know 
that there Is a point of exhilaration at which one 
believes In Mr. Wegg. To them the Impossibili- 
ties of Dickens seem much more Impossible than 
they really are, because they are already attuned 
to the opposite Impossibilities of Maeterlinck. For 
every mood there Is an appropriate ImpossIblHty 
— a decent and tactful Impossibility — fitted to the 
frame of mind. Every train of thought may end 
In an ecstasy, and all roads lead to Elfland. But 
few now walk far enough along the street of 
Dickens to find the place where the cockney villas 
grow so comic that they become poetical. People 
do not know how far mere good spirits will go. 
For instance, we never think (as the old folk-lore 
did) of good spirits reaching to the spiritual 
world. We see this in the complete absence from 
modem, popular supernaturalism of the old popu- 
lar mirth. We hear plenty to-day of the wisdom 
of the spiritual world; but we do not hear, as 
our fathers did, of the folly of the spiritual 
world, of the tricks of the gods, and the jokes of 
the patron saints. Our popular tales tell us of a 
man who is so wise that he touches the super- 
natural, like Dr. Nikola; but they never tell us 
(like the popular tales of the past) of a man who 



was so silly that he touched the supernatural, like 
Bottom the Weaver. We do not understand the 
dark and transcendental sympathy between fairies 
and fools. We understand a devout occultism, an 
evil occultism, a tragic occultism, but a farcical 
occultism Is beyond us. Yet a farcical occultism Is 
the very essence of " The Midsummer Night's 
Dream." It Is also the right and credible essence 
of *' The Christmas Carol." Whether we under- 
stand It depends upon whether we can understand 
that exhilaration Is not a physical accident, but a 
mystical fact; that exhilaration can be Infinite, like 
sorrow; that a joke can be so big that It breaks 
the roof of the stars. By simply going on being 
absurd, a thing can become godlike; there is but 
one step from the ridiculous to the sublime. 

Dickens was great because he was Immoderately 
possessed with all this; If we are to understand 
him at all we must also be moderately possessed 
with It. We must understand this old limitless 
hilarity and human confidence, at least enough to 
be able to endure It when It Is pushed a great deal 
too far. For Dickens did push it too far; he did 
push the hilarity to the point of Incredible char- 
acter-drawing; he did push the human confidence 
to the point of an unconvincing sentimentalism. 
You can trace, if you will, the revolutionary joy 



till It reaches the Incredible Sapsea epitaph; you 
can trace the revolutionary hope till It reaches the 
repentance of Dombey. There Is plenty to carp 
at In this man if you are Inclined to carp ; you may 
easily find him vulgar If you cannot see that he 
IS divine; and if you cannot laugh with Dickens, 
undoubtedly you can laugh at him. 

I believe myself that this braver world of his 
will certainly return; for I believe that it is bound 
up with realities, like morning and the spring. 
But for those who beyond remedy regard It as an 
error, I put this appeal before any other observa- 
tions on Dickens. First let us sympathize, if only 
for an instant, with the hopes of the Dickens 
period, with that cheerful trouble of change. If 
democracy has disappointed you, do not think of 
It as a burst bubble, but at least as a broken heart, 
an old love-affair. Do not sneer at the time when 
the creed of humanity was on its honeymoon; treat 
It with the dreadful reverence that is due to youth. 
For you, perhaps, a drearier philosophy has cov- 
ered and eclipsed the earth. The fierce poet of 
the Middle Ages wrote, "Abandon hope all ye 
who enter here " over the gates of the lower world. 
The emancipated poets of to-day have written it 
over the gates of this world. But if we are to 
understand the story which follows, we must erase 



that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We 
must recreate the faith of bur fathers, if only as 
an artistic atmosphere. If, then, you are a pessi- 
mist, in reading this story, forego for a little the 
pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad mo- 
ment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister 
learning that you think so clear; deny that deadly 
knowledge that you think you know. Surrender 
the very flower of your culture; give up the very 
jewel of your pride; abandon hopelessness, all ye 
who enter here. 



Charles Dickens was born at Landport, in 
Portsea, on February 7, 18 12. His father was 
a clerk in the Navy Pay-office, and was tempo- 
rarily on duty In the neighbourhood. Very soon 
after the birth of Charles Dickens, however, the 
family moved for a short period to Norfolk Street, 
Bloomsbury, and then for a long period to Chat- 
ham, which thus became the real home, and for all 
serious purposes, the native place of Dickens. The 
whole story of his life moves like a Canterbury 
pilgrimage along the great roads of Kent. 

John Dickens, his father, was, as stated, a clerk; 
but such mere terms of trade tell us little of the 
tone or status of a family. Browning's father (to 
take an Instance at random) would also be de- 
scribed as a clerk and a man of the middle class; 
but the Browning family and the Dickens family 
have the colour of two different civilizations. The 
difference cannot be conveyed merely by saying 
that Browning stood many strata above Dickens. 
It must also be conveyed that Browning belonged 



to that section of the middle class which tends (In 
the small social sense) to rise; the Dickenses to 
that section which tends in the same sense to fall. 
If Browning had not been a poet, he would have 
been a better clerk than his father, and his son 
probably a better and richer clerk than he. But 
if they had not been lifted in the air by the enor- 
mous accident of a man of genius, the Dickenses, 
I fancy would have appeared in poorer and poorer 
places, as inventory clerks, as caretakers, as ad- 
dressers of envelopes, until they melted into the 
masses of the poor. 

Yet at the time of Dickens's birth and childhood 
this weakness In their worldly destiny was In no 
way apparent; especially it was not apparent to 
the little Charles himself. He was born and grew 
up In a paradise of small prosperity. He fell Into 
the family, so to speak, during one of Its comfort- 
able periods, and he never In those early days 
thought of himself as anything but as a comfort- 
able middle-class child, the son of a comfortable 
middle-class man. The father whom he found 
provided for him, was one from whom comfort 
drew forth his most pleasant and reassuring quali- 
ties, though not perhaps his most Interesting and 
peculiar. John Dickens seemed, most probably, 
a hearty and kindly character, a little florid of 



speech, a little careless of duty In some details, 
notably in the detail of education. His neglect 
of his son's mental training in later and more try- 
ing times was a piece of unconscious selfishness 
which remained a little acrimoniously In his son's 
mind through life. But even in this earlier and 
easier period what records there are of John Dick- 
ens give out the air of a somewhat Idle and Irre- 
sponsible fatherhood. He exhibited towards his 
son that contradiction In conduct which Is always 
shown by the too thoughtless parent to the too 
thoughtful child. He contrived at once to neglect 
his mind, and also to over-stimulate It. 

There are many recorded tales and traits of the 
author's Infancy, but one small fact seems to me 
more than any other to strike the note and give the 
key to his whole strange character. His father 
found It more amusing to be an audience than to 
be an Instructor; and Instead of giving the child 
Intellectual pleasure, called upon him, almost be- 
fore he was out of petticoats, to provide it. Some 
of the earliest glimpses we have of Charles Dick- 
ens show him to us perched on some chair or table 
singing comic songs in an atmosphere of perpetual 
applause. So, almost as soon as he can toddle, he 
steps Into the glare of the footlights. He never 
stepped out of it until he died. He was a good 



man, as men go In this bewildering world of ours, 
brave, transparent, tender-hearted, scrupulously in- 
dependent and honourable; he was not a man 
whose weaknesses should be spoken of without 
some delicacy and doubt. But there did mingle 
with his merits all his life this theatrical quality, 
this atmosphere of being shown off — a sort of 
hilarious self-consciousness. His literary life was 
a triumphal procession; he died drunken with 
glory. And behind ail this nine years' wonder that 
filled the world, behind his gigantic tours and his 
I ten thousand editions, the crowded lectures and the 
(crashing brass, behind all the thing we really see 
I IS the flushed face of a little boy singing music-hall 
i songs to a circle of aunts and uncles. And this 
'[precocious pleasure explains much, too, in the 
'moral way. Dickens had all his life the faults of 
the little boy who is kept up too late at night. 
The boy In such a case exhibits a psychological 
paradox; he is a little too irritable because he Is a 
ihttle too happy. Dickens was always a little too 
Irritable because he was a little too happy. Like 
(the over-wrought child In society, he was splen- 
didly sociable, and yet suddenly quarrelsome. In 
all the practical relations of his life he was what 
the child is In the last hours of an evening party, 
genuinely delighted, genuinely delightful, genu- 



Inely affectionate and happy, and yet In some 
strange way fundamentally exasperated and dan- 
gerously close to tears. 

There was another touch about the boy which 
made his case more peculiar, and perhaps his in- 
telligence more fervid; the touch of ill-health. 
It could not be called more than a touch, for he 
suffered from no formidable malady and could 
always through life endure a great degree of 
exertion even if it was only the exertion of walk- 
ing violently all night. Still the streak of sickness 
was sufficient to take him out of the common un- 
conscious life of the community of boys; and for 
good or evil that withdrawal is always a matter of 
deadly importance to the mind. He was thrown 
back perpetually upon the pleasures of the Intelli- 
gence, and these began to burn in his head like 
a pent and painful furnace. In his own unvary- 
ingly vivid way he has described how he crawled 
up into an unconsidered garret, and there found, in 
a dusty heap, the undying literature of England. 
The books he mentions chiefly are ^' Humphrey 
Clinker " and '* Tom Jones." When he opened 
those two books in the garret he caught hold of the 
only past with which he is at all connected, the 
great comic writers of England of whom he was 
destined to be the last. 



It must be remembered (as I have suggested 
before) that there was something about the county 
in which he lived, and the great roads along which 
he travelled that sympathized with and stimulated 
his pleasure in this old picaresque literature. The 
groups that came along the road, that passed 
through his town and out of it, were of the motley 
laughable type that tumbled into ditches or beat 
down the doors of taverns under the escort of 
Smollett and Fielding. In our time the main roads 
of Kent have upon them very often a perpetual 
procession of tramps and tinkers unknown on the 
quiet hills of Sussex; and it may have been so also 
In Dickens's boyhood. In his neighbourhood were 
definite memorials of yet older and yet greater 
English comedy. From the height of Gad's-hill at 
which he stared unceasingly there looked down 
upon him the monstrous ghost of Falstaff, Falstaff 
who might well have been the spiritual father of 
all Dickens's adorable knaves, Falstaff the great 
mountain of English laughter and English senti- 
mentalism, the great, healthy, humane English 
humbug, not to be matched among the nations. 

At this eminence of Gad's-hill Dickens used to 
stare even as a boy with the steady purpose of 
some day making It his own. It Is characteristic 
of the consistency which underlies the superficially 



erratic career of Dickens that he actually did live 
to make it his own. The truth is that he was a 
precocious child, precocious not only on the more 
poetical but on the more prosaic side of life. He 
was ambitious as well as enthusiastic. No one can 
ever know what visions they were that crowded 
into the head of the clever little brat as he ran 
about the streets of Chatham or stood glowering 
at Gad's-hill. But I think that quite mundane 
visions had a very considerable share In the matter. 
He longed to go to school (a strange wish), to go 
to college, to make a name, nor did he merely 
aspire to these things; the great number of them 
he also expected. He regarded himself as a child 
of good position just about to enter on a life of 
good luck. He thought his home and family a 
very good spring-board or jumping-off place from 
which to fling himself to the positions which he 
desired to reach. And almost as he was about 
to spring the whole structure broke under him, 
and he and all that belonged to him disappeared 
into a darkness far below. 

Everything had been struck down as with the 
finality of a thunder-bolt. His lordly father was 
a bankrupt, and In the Marshalsea prison. His 
mother was In a mean home In the north of Lon- 
don, wildly proclaiming herself the principal of 



a girl's school, a girl's school to which nobody 
would go. And he himself, the conqueror of the 
world and the prospective purchaser of Gads-hill, 
passed some distracted and bewildering days in 
pawning the household necessities to Fagins in foul 
shops, and then found himself somehow or other 
one of a row of ragged boys in a great dreary 
factory, pasting the same kinds of labels on to the 
same kinds of blacking bottles from morning till 

Although it seemed sudden enough to him, the 
disintegration had, as a matter of fact, of course, 
been going on for a long time. He had only heard 
from his father dark and melodramatic allusions 
to a " deed " which, from the way it was men- 
tioned, might have been a claim to the crown or 
a compact with the devil, but which was in truth 
an unsuccessful documentary attempt on the part 
of John Dickens to come to a composition with 
his creditors. And now, in the lurid light of his 
sunset, the character of John Dickens began to 
take on those purple colours which have made 
him under another name absurd and immortal. It 
required a tragedy to bring out this man's comedy. 
So long as John Dickens was in easy circum- 
stances, he seemed only an easy man, a little long 
and luxuriant in his phrases, a little careless in 



his business routine. He seemed only a wordy 
man, v/ho lived on bread and beef like his neigh- 
bours; but as bread and beef were successively 
taken away from him, It was discovered that he 
lived on words. For him to be involved in a 
calamity only meant to be cast for the first part 
In a tragedy. For him blank ruin was only a 
subject for blank verse. Henceforth we feel 
scarcely inclined to call him John Dickens at all; 
we feel inclined to call him by the name through 
which his son celebrated this preposterous and sub- 
lime victory of the human spirit over circum- 
stances. Dickens, in " David Copperfield," called 
him Wilkins Micawber. In his personal corre- 
spondence he called him the Prodigal Father. 

Young Charles had been hurriedly flung into the 
factory by the more or less careless good-nature 
of James Lamert, a relation of his mother's; it 
was a blacking factory, supposed to be run as a 
rival to Warren's by another and " original " 
Warren, both practically conducted by another of 
the Lamerts. It was situated near Hungerford 
Market. Dickens worked there drearily, like one 
stunned with disappointment. To a child exces- 
sively Intellectualized, and at this time, I fear, 
excessively egotistical, the coarseness of the whole 
thing — the work, the rooms, the boys, the lan- 



guage — was a sort of bestial nightmare. Not only 
did he scarcely speak of It then, but he scarcely 
spoke of It afterwards. Years later, In the fulness 
of his fame, he heard from Forster that a man 
had spoken of knowing him. On hearing the 
name, he somewhat curtly acknowledged It, and 
spoke of having seen the man once. Forster, In 
his Innocence, answered that the man said he had 
seen Dickens many times In a factory by Hunger- 
ford Market. Dickens was suddenly struck with 
a long and extraordinary silence. Then he Invited 
Forster, as his best friend, to a particular Inter- 
view, and, with every appearance of difficulty and 
distress, told him the whole story for the first and 
the last time. A long while after that he told the 
world some part of the matter In the account of 
Murdstone and Grinby's In *' David Copperfield." 
He never spoke of the whole experience except 
once or twice, and he never spoke of It otherwise 
than as a man might speak of hell. 

It need not be suggested, I think, that this 
agony In the child was exaggerated by the man. 
It Is true that he was not incapable of the vice of 
exaggeration. If It be a vice. There was about 
him much vanity and a certain virulence In his 
version of many things. Upon the whole. Indeed, 
It would hardly be too much to say that he would 



have exaggerated any sorrow he talked about. 
But this was a sorrow with a very strange position 
in Dickens's life; it was a sorrow he did not talk 
about. Upon this particular dark spot he kept a 
sort of deadly silence for twenty years. An ac- 
cident revealed part of the truth to the dearest 
of all his friends. He then told the whole truth 
to the dearest of all his friends. He never told 
anybody else. I do not think that this arose from 
any social sense of disgrace; if he had it slightly 
at the time, he was far too self-satisfied a man to 
have taken it seriously in after hfe. I really think 
that his pain at this time was so real and ugly that 
the thought of it filled him with that sort of 
Impersonal but unbearable shame with which we 
are filled, for instance, by the notion of physical 
torture, of something that humiliates humanity. 
He felt that such agony was something obscene. 
Moreover there are two other good reasons for 
thinking that his sense of hopelessness was very 
genuine. First of all, this starless outlook Is com- 
mon in the calamities of boyhood. The bitterness 
of boyish distresses does not lie in the fact that 
they are large; it lies In the fact that we do not 
know that they are small. About any early dis- 
aster there is a dreadful finality; a lost child can 
suffer like a lost soul. 



It is currently said that hope goes with youth, 
and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but 
I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and 
the only gift not given to youth. Youth is pre- 
eminently the period in v/hich a man can be lyric, 
fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which 
a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode 
is the end of the world. But the power of hoping 
through everything, the knowledge that the soul 
survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes 
to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine 
until now. It is from the backs of the elderly 
gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should 
burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies 
the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. 
They have discovered their indestructibility. They 
are in their second and clearer childhood, and 
there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. 
They have seen the end of the End of the World. 

First, then, the desolate finality of Dickens's 
childish mood makes me think it was a real one. 
And there Is another thing to be remembered. 
Dickens was not a saintly child after the style 
of Little Dorrit or Little Nell. He had not, 
at this time at any rate, set his heart wholly upon 
higher things, even upon things such as personal 
tenderness or loyalty. He had been, and was, 



unless I am very much mistaken, sincerely, stub- 
bornly, bitterly ambitious. He had, I fancy, a 
fairly clear Idea previous to the downfall of all 
his family's hopes of what he wanted to do In 
the world, and of the mark that he meant to make 
there. In no dishonourable sense, but still In a 
definite sense he might. In early life, be called 
worldly ; and the children of this world are In their 
generation Infinitely more sensitive than the chil- 
dren of light. A saint after repentance will for- 
give himself for a sin ; a man about town will never 
forgive himself for a faux pas. There are ways 
of getting absolved for murder; there are no ways 
of getting absolved for upsetting the soup. This 
thin-skinned quality In all very mundane people 
is a thing too little remembered; and It must not 
be wholly forgotten in connection with a clever, 
restless lad who dreamed of a destiny. That part 
of his distress which concerned himself and his 
social standing was among the other parts of It 
the least noble ; but perhaps It was the most pain- 
ful. For pride Is not only (as the modern world 
fails to understand) a sin to be condemned; It Is 
also (as It understands even less) a weakness to 
be very much commiserated. A very vitalizing 
touch is given In one of his own reminiscences. 
His most unendurable moment did not come in any 



bullying In the factory or any famine In the streets. 
It came when he went to see his sister Fanny 
take a prize at the Royal Academy of Music. " I 
could not bear to think of myself — beyond the 
reach of all such honourable emulation and success. 
The tears ran down my face. I felt as If my heart 
were rent. I prayed when I went to bed that night 
to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect In 
which I was. I never had suffered so much before. 
There was no envy In this." I do not think that 
there was, though the poor little wretch could 
hardly have been blamed If there had been. There 
was only a furious sense of frustration; a spirit 
like a wild beast In a cage. It was only a small 
matter In the external and obvious sense; It was 
only Dickens prevented from being Dickens. 

If we put these facts together, that the tragedy 
seemed final, and that the tragedy was concerned 
with the supersensitive matters of the ego and 
the gentleman, I think we can imagine a pretty 
genuine case of Internal depression. And when 
we add to the case of the internal depression the 
case of the external oppression, the case of the 
material circumstances by which he was sur- 
rounded, we have reached a sort of midnight. All 
day he worked on Insufficient food at a factory. 
It Is sufficient to say that It afterwards appeared 



in his works as Murdstone and Grinby's. At 
night he returned disconsolately to a lodging-house 
for such lads, kept by an old lady. It is sufficient 
to say that she appeared afterwards as Mrs. Pip- 
chin. Once a week only he saw anybody for whom 
he cared a straw; that was when he went to the 
Marshalsea prison, and that gave his juvenile 
pride, half manly and half snobbish, bitter annoy- 
ance of another kind. Add to this, finally, that 
physically he was always very weak and never 
very well. Once he was struck down in the middle 
of his work with sudden bodily pain. The boy 
who worked next to him, a coarse and heavy lad 
named Bob Fagin, who had often attacked Dick- 
ens on the not unreasonable ground of his being 
a " gentleman," suddenly showed that enduring 
sanity of compassion which Dickens was destined 
to show so often in the characters of the common 
and unclean. Fagin made a bed for his sick com- 
panion out of the straw in the workroom, and 
filled empty blacking bottles with hot water all 
day. When the evening came, and Dickens was 
somewhat recovered. Bob Fagin insisted on es- 
corting the boy home to his father. The situa- 
tion was as poignant as a sort of tragic farce. 
Fagin in his wooden-headed chivalry would have 
died in order to take Dickens to his family; Dick- 



ens In his bitter gentility would have died rather 
than let Fagin know that his family were in the 
Marshalsea. So these two young idiots tramped 
the tedious streets, both stubborn, both suffering 
for an idea. The advantage certainly was with 
Fagin, who was suffering for a Christian compas- 
sion, while Dickens was suffering for a pagan 
pride. At last Dickens flung off his friend with 
desperate farewell and thanks, and dashed up the 
steps of a strange house on the Surrey side. He 
knocked and rang as Bob Fagin, his benefactor 
and his incubus, disappeared round the corner. 
And when the servant came to open the door, he 
asked, apparently with gravity, whether Mr. Rob- 
ert Fagin lived there. It Is a strange touch. The 
Immortal Dickens woke In him for an instant in 
that last wild joke of that weary evening. Next 
morning, however, he was again well enough to 
make himself ill again, and the wheels of the 
great factory went on. They manufactured a 
number of bottles of Warren's Blacking, and in 
the course of the process they manufactured also 
the greatest optimist of the nineteenth century. 

This boy who dropped down groaning at his 
work, who was hungry four or five times a week, 
whose best feelings and worst feelings were alike 
flayed alive, was the man on whom two genera- 



tlons of comfortable critics have visited the com- 
plaint that his view of life was too rosy to be 
anything but unreal. Afterwards, and in Its 
proper place, I shall speak of what Is called the 
optimism of Dickens, and of whether It was really 
too cheerful or too smooth. But this boyhood 
of his may be recorded now as a mere fact. If 
he was too happy, this was where he learnt It. 
If his school of thought was a vulgar optimism, 
this Is where he went to school. If he learnt to 
whitewash the universe, It was In a blacking fac- 
tory that he learnt It. 

As a fact, there is no shred of evidence to show 
that those who have had sad experiences tend to 
have a sad philosophy. There are numberless 
points upon which Dickens is spiritually at one 
with the poor, that Is, with the great mass of man- 
kind. But there Is no point in which he is more 
perfectly at one with them than in showing that 
there Is no kind of connection between a man being 
unhappy and a man being pessimistic. Sorrow and 
pessimism are Indeed, in a sense, opposite things, 
since sorrow Is founded on the value of something, 
and pessimism upon the value of nothing. And 
In practice we find that those poets or political 
leaders who come from the people, and whose ex- 
periences have really been searching and cruel, are 



the most sanguine people In the world. These 
men out of the old agony are always optimists; 
they are sometimes offensive optimists. A man 
like Robert Burns, whose father (like Dickens's 
father) goes bankrupt, whose whole life Is a strug- 
gle against miserable external powers and internal 
weaknesses yet more miserable — a man whose life 
begins grey and ends black — Burns does not 
merely sing about the goodness of life, he posi- 
tively rants and cants about It. Rousseau, whom 
all his friends and acquaintances treated almost 
as badly as he treated them — Rousseau does not 
grow merely eloquent, he grows gushing and sen- 
timental, about the Inherent goodness of human 
nature. Charles Dickens, who was most miser- 
able at the receptive age when most people are 
most happy. Is afterwards happy when all men 
weep. Circumstances break men's bones; It has 
never been shown that they break men's optimism. 
These great popular leaders do all kinds of des- 
perate things under the Immediate scourge of 
tragedy. They become drunkards; they become 
demiagogues ; they become morpho-manlacs. They 
never become pessimists. Most unquestionably 
there are ragged and unhappy men whom we could 
easily understand being pessimists. But as a mat- 
ter of fact they are not pessimists. Most unques- 



tionably there are whole dim hordes of humanity 
whom we should promptly pardon If they cursed 
God. But they don't. The pessimists are aris- 
tocrats like Byron; the men who curse God are 
aristocrats like Swinburne. But when those who 
starve and suffer speak for a moment, they do not 
profess merely an optimism, they profess a cheap 
optimism; they are too poor to afford a dear one. 
They cannot Indulge In any detailed or merely 
logical defence of life; that would be to delay 
the enjoyment of It. These higher optimists, of 
whom Dickens was one, do not approve of the 
universe; they do not even admire the universe; 
they fall In love with It. They embrace life too 
closely to criticize or even to see It. Existence to 
such men has the wild beauty of a woman, and 
those love her with most Intensity who love her 
with least cause. 




There are popular phrases so picturesque that 
even when they are Intentionally funny they are 
unintentionally poetical. I remember, to take one 
instance out of many, hearing a heated Secularist 
in Hyde Park apply to some parson or other the 
exquisite expression, '' a sky-pilot.'* Subsequent 
inquiry has taught me that the term is intended 
to be comic and even contemptuous; but in that 
first freshness of it I went home repeating it to 
myself like a new poem. Few of the pious legends 
have conceived so strange and yet celestial a pict- 
ure as this of the pilot in the sky, leaning on his 
helm above the empty heavens, and carrying his 
cargo of souls higher than the loneliest cloud. 
The phrase is like a lyric of Shelley. Or, to take 
another instance from another language, the 
French have an incomparable idiom for a boy 
playing truant: " II fait I'ecole buissonniere " — he 
goes to the bushy school, or the school among the 
bushes. How admirably this accidental expres- 
sion, " the bushy school " (not to be lightly con- 



founded with the Art School at Bushey) — how 
admirably this " bushy school " expresses half the 
modern notions of a more natural education ! The 
two words express the whole poetry of Words- 
worth, the whole philosophy of Thoreau, and are 
quite as good literature as either. 

Now, among a million of such scraps of in- 
spired slang there Is one which describes a certain 
side of Dickens better than pages of explanation. 
The phrase, appropriately enough, occurs at least 
once In his works, and that on a fitting occasion. 
When Job Trotter Is sent by Sam on a wild chase 
after Mr. Perker, the solicitor, Mr. Perker's clerk 
condoles with Job upon the lateness of the hour, 
and the fact that all habitable places are shut up. 
" My friend," says Mr. Perker's clerk, " you've 
got the key of the street." Mr. Perker's clerk, 
who was a flippant and scornful young man, may 
perhaps be pardoned If he used this expression In 
a flippant and scornful sense; but let us hope that 
Dickens did not. Let us hope that Dickens saw 
the strange, yet satisfying. Imaginative justice of 
the words; for Dickens himself had. In the most 
sacred and serious sense of the term, the key of the 
street. When we shut out anything, we are shut 
out of that thing. When we shut out the street, 
we are shut out of the street. Few of us under- 



stand the street. Even when we step into It, we 
step into It doubtfully, as into a house or room of 
strangers. Few of us see through the shining 
riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong 
to the street only — the street-walker or the street 
arab, the nomads who, generation after genera- 
tion, have kept their ancient secrets in the full 
blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of 
us know even less. The street at night is a great 
house locked up. But Dickens had, If ever man 
had, the key of the street. His earth was the 
stones of the street; his stars were the lamps of 
the street; his hero was the man in the street. He 
could open the inmost door of his house — the door 
that leads Into that secret passage which is lined 
with houses and roofed with stars. 

This silent transformation into a citizen of the 
street took place during those dark days of boy- 
hood, when Dickens was drudging at the factory. 
Whenever he had done drudging, he had no other 
resource but drifting, and he drifted over half 
London. He was a dreamy child, thinking mostly 
of his own dreary prospects. Yet he saw and 
remembered much of the streets and squares he 
passed. Indeed, as a matter of fact, he went the 
right way to work unconsciously to do so. He 
did not go In for " observation," a priggish habit; 



he did not look at Charing Cross to improve his 
mind or count the lamp-posts in Holborn to prac- 
tise his arithmetic. But unconsciously he made 
all these places the scenes of the monstrous drama 
in his miserable little soul. He walked in dark- 
ness under the lamps of Holborn, and was cruci- 
fied at Charing Cross. So for him ever after- 
wards these places had the beauty that only be- 
longs to battlefields. For our memory never fixes 
the facts which we have merely observed. The 
only way to remember a place for ever is to live 
m the place for an hour; and the only way to live 
in the place for an hour is to forget the place for 
an hour. The undying scenes we can all see if 
we shut our eyes are not the scenes that we have 
stared at under the direction of guide-books; the 
scenes we see are the scenes at which we did not 
look at all — the scenes in which we walked when 
we were thinking about something else — about a 
sm, or a love affair, or some childish sorrow. We 
can see the background now because we did not 
see It then. So Dickens did not stamp these places 
on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places. 
For him ever afterwards these streets were mor- 
tally romantic; they were dipped in the purple 
dyes of youth and Its tragedy, and rich with ir- 
revocable sunsets. 



Herein Is the whole secret of that eerie realism 
with which Dickens could always vitalize some 
dark or dull corner of London. There are details 
In the Dickens descriptions — a window, or a rail- 
ing, or the keyhole of a door — which he endows 
with demoniac life. The things seem more actual 
than things really are. Indeed, that degree of 
realism does not exist In reality: it Is the unbear- 
able realism of a dream. And this kind of real- 
ism can only be gained by walking dreamily In a 
place ; it cannot be gained by walking observantly. 
Dickens himself has given a perfect instance of 
how these nightmare minutiiae grew upon him in 
his trance of abstraction. He mentions among the 
coffee-shops Into which he crept in those wretched 
days " one In St. Martin's Lane, of which I only 
recollect that it stood near the church, and that 
In the door there was an oval glass plate with 
' COFFEE ROOM ' painted on it, addressed 
towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very 
different kind of coffee-room now, but where there 
Is such an inscription on glass, and read It back- 
wards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as 
I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a 
shock goes through my blood.'^ That wild word, 
" Moor Eeffoc," is the motto of all effective real- 
ism! it is the masterpiece of the good realistic 



principle — the principle that the most fantastic 
thing of all is often the precise fact. And that 
elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted every- 
where. His world was alive with inanimate ob- 
jects. The date on the door danced over Mr. 
Grewgius, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, 
the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. 
Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom 
Smart — these are all moor eefocish things. A 
man sees them because he does not look at them. 
And so the little Dickens Dickensized London. 
He prepared the way for all his personages. Into 
whatever cranny of our city his characters might 
crawl, Dickens had been there before them. How- 
ever wild were the events he narrated as outside 
him, they could not be wilder than the things that 
had gone on within. However queer a character 
of Dickens might be, he could hardly be queerer 
than Dickens was. The whole secret of his after- 
writings is sealed up in those silent years of which 
no written word remains. Those years did him 
harm perhaps, as his biographer, Forster, has 
thoughtfully suggested, by sharpening a certain 
fierce individualism in him which once or twice 
during his genial life flashed like a half-hidden 
knife. He was always generous; but things had 
gone too hardly with him for him to be always 



easy-going. He was always kind-hearted; he was 
not always good-humoured. Those years may 
also, In their strange mixture of morbidity and 
reality, have Increased In him his tendency to ex- 
aggeration. But we can scarcely lament this In 
a literary sense ; exaggeration Is almost the defini- 
tion of art — and It Is entirely the definition of 
Dickens's art. Those years may have given him 
many moral and mental wounds, from which he 
never recovered. But they gave him the key of 
the street. 

There Is a weird contradiction In the soul of 
the born optimist. He can be happy and unhappy 
at the same time. With Dickens the practical 
depression of his life at this time did nothing to 
prevent him from laying up those hilarious memo- 
ries of which all his books are made. No doubt 
he was genuinely unhappy In the poor place where 
his mother kept school. Nevertheless It was there 
that he noticed the unfathomable qualntness of the 
little servant whom he made into the Marchioness. 
No doubt he was comfortless enough at the board- 
ing-house of Mrs. Roylance; but he perceived 
with a dreadful joy that Mrs. Roylance's name 
was PIpchln. There seems to be no Incompatibil- 
ity between taking in tragedy and giving out 
comedy; they are able to run parallel in the same 



personality. One incident which he described In 
his unfinished " autobiography," and which he 
afterwards transferred almost verbatim to David 
Copperfield, was peculiarly rich and impressive. 
It was the inauguration of a petition to the King 
for a bounty, drawn up by a committee of the 
prisoners In the Marshalsea, a committee of which 
Dickens's father was the president, no doubt In 
virtue of his oratory, and also the scribe, no doubt 
in virtue of his genuine love of literary flights. 

*' As many of the principal officers of this body 
as could be got Into a small room without filling 
it up, supported him in front of the petition ; and 
my old friend, Captain Porter (who had washed 
himself to do honour to so solemn an occasion), 
stationed himself close to It, to read it to all who 
were unacquainted with Its contents. The door 
was then thrown open, and they began to come In 
in a long file; several waiting on the landing out- 
side, while one entered, affixed his signature, and 
went out. To everybody in succession Captain 
Porter said, ' Would you like to hear it read ' ? 
If he weakly showed the least disposition to hear 
it, Captain Porter In a loud, sonorous voice gave 
him every word of it. I remember a certain 
luscious roll he gave to such words as * Majesty — 
Gracious Majesty — Your Gracious Majesty's un- 



fortunate subjects — Your Majesty's well-known 
munificence,' as if the words were something real 
in his mouth and delicious to taste : my poor father 
meanwhile listening with a little of an author's 
vanity and contemplating (not severely) the spike 
on the opposite wall. Whatever was comical or 
pathetic in this scene, I sincerely believe I per- 
ceived in my corner, whether I demonstrated it 
or not, quite as well as I should perceive it now. 
I made out my own little character and story for 
every man who put his name to the sheet of 

Here we see very plainly that Dickens did not 
merely look back in after days and see that these 
humours had been delightful. He was delighted 
at the same moment that he was desperate. The 
two opposite things existed in him simultaneously, 
and each in its full strength. His soul was not a 
mixed colour like grey and purple, caused by no 
component colour being quite itself. His soul was 
like a shot silk of black and crimson, a shot silk of 
misery and joy. 

Seen from the outside, his little pleasures and 
extravagances seem more pathetic than his grief. 
Once the solemn little figure went into a public- 
house in Parliament Street, and addressed the man 
behind the bar in the following terms — " What is 



your very best — the VERY best ale a glass?" 
The man replied, " Twopence." '' Then," said 
the infant, " just draw me a glass of that, if you 
please, with a good head to it." " The landlord," 
says Dickens, in telling the story, " looked at me 
in return over the bar from head to foot with a 
strange smile on his face; instead of drawing the 
beer looked round the screen and said something 
to his wife, who came out from behind it with her 
work in her hand and joined him in surveying me. 
. . . They asked me a good many questions as to 
what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, 
how I was employed, etc., etc. To all of which, 
that I might commit nobody, I invented appropri- 
ate answers. They served me with the ale, though 
I suspect it was not the strongest on the premises ; 
and the landlord's wife, opening the little half- 
door, and bending down, gave me a kiss." Here 
he touches that other side of common life which 
he was chiefly to champion; he was to show that 
there is no ale like the ale of a poor man's festival, 
and no pleasures like the pleasures of the poor. 
At other places of refreshment he was yet more 
majestic. *' I remember," he says, " tucking my 
own bread (which I had brought from home in the 
morning) under my arm, wrapt up in a piece of 
paper like a book, and going into the best dining- 



room In Johnson's Alamode Beef House in Clare 
Court, Drury Lane, and magnificently ordering a 
small plate of a-la-mode beef to eat with it. What 
the waiter thought of such a strange little appari- 
tion coming In all alone I don't know; but I can 
see him now staring at me as I ate my dinner, and 
bringing up the other waiter to look. I gave him 
a halfpenny, and I wish, now, that he hadn't 
taken it." 

For the boy individually the prospect seemed 
to be growing drearier and drearier. This phrase 
Indeed hardly expresses the fact; for, as he felt it, 
It was not so much a run of worsening luck as the 
closing in of a certain and quiet calamity like the 
coming on of twilight and dark. He felt that he 
would die and be burled in blacking. Through 
all this he does not seem to have said much to his 
parents of his distress. They who were in prison 
had certainly a much jollier time than he who was 
free. But of all the strange ways in which the 
human being proves that he Is not a rational being, 
whatever else he is, no case Is so mysterious and 
unaccountable as the secrecy of childhood. We 
learn of the cruelty of some school or child-factory 
from journalists; we learn it from Inspectors, we 
learn it from doctors, we learn it even from shame- 
stricken schoolmasters and repentant sweaters ; but 



we never learn it from the children; we never 
learn it from the victims. It would seem as If a 
living creature had to be taught, like an art of 
culture, the art of crying out when it is hurt. It 
would seem as if patience were the natural thing; 
It would seem as If impatience were an accomplish- 
ment like whist. However this may be, It Is wholly 
certain that Dickens might have drudged and died 
drudging, and burled the unborn Pickwick, but 
for an external accident. 

He was, as has been said, in the habit of visit- 
ing his father at the Marshalsea every week. The 
talks between the two must have been a comedy, 
at once more cruel and more delicate than Dickens 
ever described. Meredith might picture the com- 
parison between the child whose troubles were so 
childish, but who felt them like a damned spirit, 
and the middle-aged man whose trouble was final 
ruin, and who felt It no more than a baby. Once, 
It would appear, the boy broke down altogether — 
perhaps under the unbearable buoyancy of his ora- 
torical papa — and Implored to be freed from the 
factory — Implored It, I fear, with a precocious and 
almost horrible eloquence. The old optimist was 
astounded — too much astounded to do anything in 
particular. Whether the Incident had really any- 
thing to do with what followed cannot be decided, 



but ostensibly it had not. Ostensibly the cause of 
Charles's ultimate liberation was a quarrel between 
his father and Lamert, the head of the factory. 
Dickens the elder (who had at last left the Mar- 
shalsea) could no doubt conduct a quarrel with the 
magnificence of Micawber; the result of this talent, 
at any rate, was to leave Mr. Lamert in a tower- 
ing rage. He had a stormy interview with Charles, 
in which he tried to be good-tempered to the boy, 
but could hardly master his tongue about the boy's 
father. Finally he told him he must go, and with 
every observance the little creature was solemnly 
expelled from hell. 

His mother, with a touch of strange harshness, 
was for patching up the quarrel and sending him 
back. Perhaps, with the fierce feminine responsi- 
bility, she felt that the first necessity was to keep 
the family out of debt. But old John Dickens put 
his foot down here — put his foot down with that 
ringing but very rare decision with which (once in 
ten years, and often on some trivial matter) the 
weakest man will overwhelm the strongest woman. 
The boy was miserable; the boy was clever; the 
boy should go to school. The boy went to school ; 
he went to the Wellington House Academy, Morn- 
ington Place. It was an odd experience for any 
one to go from the world to a school, instead of 



going from school to the world. Dickens, we 
may say, had his boyhood after his youth. He 
had seen life at its coarsest before he began his 
training for it, and knew the worst words in the 
English language probably before the best. This 
odd chronology, it will be remembered, he retained 
in his semi-autobiographical account of the adven- 
tures of David Copperfield, who went into the 
business of Murdstone and Grinby's before he 
went to the school kept by Dr. Strong. David 
Copperfield, also, went to be carefully prepared 
for a world that he had seen already. Outside 
David Copperfield, the records of Dickens at this 
time reduce themselves to a few glimpses pro- 
vided by accidental companions of his schooldays, 
and little can be deduced from them about his 
personality beyond a general impression of sharp- 
ness and, perhaps, of bravado, of bright eyes and 
bright speeches. Probably the young creature was 
recuperating himself for his misfortunes, was mak- 
ing the most of his liberty, was flapping the wings 
of that wild spirit that had just not been broken. 
We hear of things that sound suddenly juvenile 
after his maturer troubles, of a secret language 
sounding like mere gibberish, and of a small thea- 
tre, with paint and red fire, such as that which 
Stevenson loved. It was not an accident that 



Dickens and Stevenson loved it. It is a stage un- 
sulted for psychological realism; the cardboard 
characters cannot analyze each other with any ef- 
fect. But it is a stage almost divinely suited for 
making surroundings, for making that situation 
and background which belong peculiarly to ro- 
mance. A toy theatre, in fact, is the opposite of 
private theatricals. In the latter you can do any- 
thing with the people if you do not ask much from 
the scenery; in the former you can do anything in 
scenery if you do not ask much from the people. 
In a toy theatre you could hardly manage a mod- 
ern dialogue on marriage, but the Day of Judg- 
ment would be quite easy. 

After leaving school, Dickens found employ- 
ment as a clerk to Mr. Blackmore, a solicitor, as 
one of those inconspicuous under-clerks whom he 
afterwards turned to many grotesque uses. Here, 
no doubt, he met Lowten and Swiveller, Chuck- 
ster and Wobbler, in so far as such sacred creatures 
ever had embodiments on this lower earth. But 
it is typical of him that he had no fancy at all to 
remain a solicitor's clerk. The resolution to rise 
which had glowed in him even as a dawdling boy, 
when he gazed at Gad's-hill, which had been 
darkened but not quite destroyed by his fall into 
the factory routine, which had been released again 



by his return to normal boyhood and the bounda- 
ries of school, was not likely to content itself now 
with the copying out of agreements. He set to 
work, without any advice or help, to learn to be a 
reporter. He worked all day at law, and then 
all night at shorthand. It is an art which can only 
be effected by time, and he had to effect it by over- 
time. But learning the thing under every disad- 
vantage, without a teacher, without the possibility 
of concentration or complete mental force, without 
ordinary human sleep, he made himself one of the 
most rapid reporters then alive. There is a curi- 
ous contrast between the casualness of the mental 
training to which his parents and others subjected 
him and the savage seriousness of the training to 
which he subjected himself. Somebody once asked 
old John Dickens where his son Charles was edu- 
cated. " Well, really," said the great creature, in 
his spacious way, " he may be said — ah — to have 
educated himself." He might indeed. 

This practical intensity of Dickens is worth our 
dwelling on, because it illustrates an elementary 
-antithesis in his character, or w^hat appears as an 
antithesis in our modern popular psychology. We 
are always talking about strong men against weak 
men; but Dickens was not only both a weak man 
and a strong man, he was a very weak man and 



also a very strong man. He was everything that 
we currently call a weak man ; he was a man hung 
on wires ; he was a man who might at any moment 
cry like a child; he was so sensitive to criticism 
that one may say that he lacked a skin; he was so 
nervous that he allowed great tragedies in his life 
to arise only out of nerves. But in the matter 
where all ordinary strong men are miserably weak 
— in the matter of concentrated toil and clear pur- 
pose and unconquerable worldly courage — he was 
like a straight sword. Mrs. Carlyle, who in her 
human epithets often hit the right nail so that it 
rang, said of him once, *' He has a face made of 
steel." This was probably felt in a flash when she 
saw. In some social crowd, the clear, eager face of 
Dickens cutting through those near him like a 
knife. Any people who had met him from year to 
year would each year have found a man weakly 
troubled about his worldly decline; and each year 
they would have found him higher up in the world. 
His was a character very hard for any man of 
slow and placable temperament to understand; he 
was the character whom anybody can hurt and no- 
body can kill. 

When he began to report in the House of Com- 
mons he was still only nineteen. His father, who 
had been released from his prison a short time 



before Charles had been released from his, had 
also become, among many other things, a reporter. 
But old John Dickens could enjoy doing anything 
without any particular aspiration after doing it 
well. But Charles was of a very different temper. 
He was, as I have said, consumed with an endur- 
ing and almost angry thirst to excel. He learnt 
shorthand with a dark self-devotion as if it were 
a sacred hieroglyph. Of this self-instruction, as 
of everything else, he has left humorous and illu- 
minating phrases. He describes how, after he had 
learnt the whole exact alphabet, " there then ap- 
peared a procession of new horrors, called arbi- 
trary characters — the most despotic characters I 
have ever known; who Insisted, for Instance, that 
a thing like the beginning of a cobweb meant 
* expectation,' and that a pen-and-ink skyrocket 
stood for * disadvantageous.' " He concludes, " It 
was almost heartbreaking." But It Is significant 
that somebody else, a colleague of his, concluded, 
*' There never was such a shorthand writer." 

Dickens succeeded in becoming a shorthand 
writer; succeeded In becoming a reporter; suc- 
ceeded ultimately In becoming a highly effective 
journalist. He was appointed as a reporter of the 
speeches In Parliament, first by The True Sun, then 
by The Mirror of Parliament, and last by The 



Morning Chronicle, He reported the speeches 
very well, and if we must analyze his internal 
opinions, much better than they deserved. For It 
must be remembered that this lad went Into the 
reporter's gallery full of the triumphant Radical- 
ism which was then the rising tide of the world. 
He was, it must be confessed, very little overpow- 
ered by the dignity of the Mother of Parliaments : 
he regarded the House of Commons much as he 
regarded the House of Lords, as a sort of venera- 
ble joke. It was, perhaps, while he watched, pale 
with weariness from the reporter's gallery, that 
there sank Into him a thing that never left him, 
his unfathomable contempt for the British Con- 
stitution. Then perhaps he heard from the Gov- 
ernment benches the Immortal apologies of the 
Circumlocution Office. " Then would the noble 
lord or right honourable gentleman. In whose 
department It w^as to defend the Circumlocution 
Office, put an orange In his pocket, and make a 
regular field-day of the occasion. Then would he 
come down to that house with a slap upon the table 
and meet the honourable gentleman foot to foot. 
Then would he be there to tell that honourable 
gentleman that the Circumlocution Office was not 
only blameless In this matter, but was commenda- 
ble In this matter, was extollable to the skies in 



this matter. Then would he be there to tell that 
honourable gentleman that although the Circumlo- 
cution Office was Invariably right, and wholly 
right, It never was so right as In this matter. Then 
would he be there to tell the honourable gentle- 
man that It would have been more to his honour, 
more to his credit, more to his good taste, more 
to his good sense, more to half the dictionary of 
common-places If he had left the Circumlocution 
Office alone and never approached this matter. 
Then would he keep one eye upon a coach or 
crammer from the Circumlocution Office below the 
bar, and smash the honourable gentleman with the 
Circumlocution Office account of this matter. And 
although one of two things always happened; 
namely, either that the Circumlocution Office had 
nothing to say, and said It, or that It had some- 
thing to say of which the noble lord or right hon- 
ourable gentleman blundered one half and forgot 
the other; the Circumlocution Office was always 
voted Immaculate by an accommodating majority." 
We are now generally told that Dickens has de- 
stroyed these abuses, and that this Is no longer a 
true picture of public life. Such, at any rate. Is 
the Circumlocution Office account of this matter. 
But Dickens as a good Radical would, I fancy, 
much prefer that we should continue his battle 



than that we should celebrate his triumph; espe- 
cially when It has not come. England Is still ruled 
by the great Barnacle family. Parliament is still 
ruled by the great Barnacle trinity — the solemn 
old Barnacle, who knew that the Circumlocution 
Office was a protection, the sprightly young Bar- 
nacle who knew that it was a fraud, and the be- 
wildered young Barnacle who knew nothing about 
It. From these three types our Cabinets are still 
exclusively recruited. People talk of the tyrannies 
and anomalies which Dickens denounced as things 
of the past like the Star Chamber. They believe 
that the days of the old stupid optimism and the 
old brutal Indifference are gone for ever. In truth, 
this very belief is only the continuance of the old 
stupid optimism and the old brutal Indifference. 
We believe in a free England and a pure England, 
because we still believe in the Circumlocution 
Office account of this matter. Undoubtedly our 
serenity Is wide-spread. We believe that England 
is really reformed, we believe that England Is 
really democratic, we believe that English politics 
are free from corruption. But this general satis- 
faction of ours does not show that Dickens has 
beaten the Barnacles. It only shows that the 
Barnacles have beaten Dickens. 

It cannot be too often said, then, that we must 



read Into young Dickens and his works this old 
Radical tone towards Institutions. That tone was 
a sort of happy impatience. And when Dickens 
had to listen for hours to the speech of the noble 
lord In defence of the Circumlocution Office, when, 
that Is, he had to listen to what he regarded as the 
last vaporlngs of a vanishing oligarchy, the Impa- 
tience rather predominated over the happiness. 
His Incurably restless nature found more pleasure 
In the wandering side of journalism. He went 
about wildly In post-chaises to report political 
meetings for the Morning Chronicle. " And what 
gentlemen they were to serve," he exclaimed, " In 
such things at the old Morning Chronicle. Great 
or small It did not matter. I have had to charge 
for half a dozen breakdowns In half a dozen times 
as many miles. I have had to charge for the dam- 
age of a great-coat from the drippings of a blaz- 
ing wax candle. In writing through the smallest 
hours of the night In a swift flying carriage and 
pair." And again, " I have often transcribed for 
the printer from my shorthand notes Important 
public speeches In which the strictest accuracy was 
required, and a mistake In which would have been 
to a young man severely compromising, writing 
on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark 
lantern, in a post-chaise and four, galloping 



through a wild country and through the dead of 
the night, at the then surprising rate of fifteen 
miles an hour." The whole of Dickens's life goes 
with the throb of that nocturnal gallop. All its 
real wildness shot through with an imaginative 
wickedness he afterwards uttered In the drive of 
Jonas Chuzzlewit through the storm. 

All this time, and indeed from a time of which 
no measure can be taken, the creative part of his 
mind had been in a stir or even a fever. While 
still a small boy he had written for his own amuse- 
ment some sketches of queer people he had met; 
notably, one of his uncle's barber, whose principal 
hobby was pointing out what Napoleon ought to 
have done in the matter of military tactics. He 
had a note-book full of such sketches. He had 
sketches not only of persons, but of places which 
were to him almost more personal than persons. 
In the December of 1833 he published one of these 
fragments in the Old Monthly Magazine, This 
was followed by nine others in the same paper, and 
when the paper (which was a romantically Radical 
venture, run by a veteran soldier of Bolivar) Itself 
collapsed, Dickens continued the series In the 
Evening Chronicle, an off-shoot of the morning 
paper of the same name. These were the pieces 
afterwards published and known as the " Sketches 



by Boz " ; and with them Dickens enters literature. 
He also enters many other things about this time; 
he enters manhood, and among other things mar- 
riage. A friend of his on the Chronicle, George 
Hogarth, had several daughters. With all of 
them Dickens appears to have been on terms of 
great affection. This sketch Is wholly literary, 
and I do not feel It necessary to do more than 
touch upon such Incidents as his marriage, just as 
I shall do no more than touch upon the tragedy 
that ultimately overtook It. But It may be sug- 
gested here that the final misfortunes were In some 
degree due to the circumstances attending the origi- 
nal action. A very young man fighting his way, 
and excessively poor, with no memories for years 
past that were not monotonous and mean, and with 
his strongest and most personal memories quite 
ignominious and unendurable, was suddenly 
thrown Into the society of a whole family of girls. 
I think it does not overstate his weakness, and I 
think It partly constitutes his excuse, to say that 
he fell In love with all of them. As sometimes 
happens In the undeveloped youth, an abstract 
femininity simply Intoxicated him. And again, I 
think we shall not be mistakenly accused of harsh- 
ness if we put the point In this way; that by a kind 
of accident he got hold of the wrong sister. In 



what came afterwards he was enormously to blame. 
But I do not think that his was a case of cold 
division from a woman whom he had once seri- 
ously and singly loved. He had been bewildered 
In a burning haze, I will not say even of first love, 
but of first flirtations. His wife's sisters stimu- 
lated him before he fell In love with his wife; and 
they continued to stimulate him long after he had 
quarrelled with her for ever. This view is strik- 
ingly supported by all the details of his attitude 
towards all the other members of the sacred house 
of Hogarth. One of the sisters remained, of 
course, his dearest friend till death. Another who 
had died, he worshipped as a saint, and he always 
asked to be burled In her grave. He was married 
on April 2, 1836. Forster remarks that a few 
days before the announcement of their marriage 
in the Times, the same paper contained another 
announcement that on the 31st would be published 
the first number of a work called " The Posthu- 
mous Papers of the Pickwick Club." It is the 
beginning of his career. 

The " Sketches," apart from splendid splashes 
of humour here and there, are not manifestations 
of the man of genius. We might almost say that 
this book Is one of the few books by Dickens which 
would not, standing alone, have made his fame. 



And yet standing alone it did make his fame. His 
contemporaries could see a new spirit in it, where 
we, familiar with the larger fruits of that spirit, 
can only see a continuation of the prosaic and al- 
most wooden wit of the comic books of that day. 
But in any case we should hardly look in the man's 
first book for the fulness of his contribution to let- 
ters. Youth is almost everything else, but it is 
hardly ever original. We read of young men 
bursting on the old world with a new message. 
But youth in actual experience is the period of 
imitation and even obedience. Subjectively its 
emotions may be furious and headlong; but its only 
external outcome is a furious imitation and a head- 
long obedience. As we grow older we learn the 
special thing we have to do. As a man goes on 
towards the grave he discovers gradually a philos- 
ophy he can really call fresh, a style he can really 
call his own, and as he becomes an older man he 
becomes a newer writer. Ibsen, in his youth, wrote 
almost classic plays about vikings; it was in his 
old age that he began to break windows and throw 
fireworks. The only fault, it was said, of Brown- 
ing's first poems was that they had '' too much 
beauty of imagery, and too little wealth of 
thought." The only fault, that is, of Browning's 
first poems, was that they were not Browning's. 



In one way, however, the " Sketches by Boz " 
do stand out very symbolically in the life of 
Dickens. They constitute in a manner the dedica- 
tion of him to his especial task; the sympathetic 
and yet exaggerated painting of the poorer middle- 
class. He was to make men feel that this dull 
middle-class was actually a kind of elf-land. But 
here, again, the work is' rude and undeveloped; 
and this is shown in the fact that it is a great deal 
more exaggerative than it is sympathetic. We 
are not, of course, concerned with the kind of peo- 
ple who say that they wish that Dickens was more 
refined. If those people are ever refined it will 
be by fire. But there is in this earliest work, an 
element which almost vanished in the later ones, 
an element which is typical of the middle-classes 
in England, and which is in a more real sense to 
be called vulgar. I mean that in these little farces 
there is a trace, in the author as well as in the char- 
acters, of that petty sense of social precedence, that 
hub-hub of little unheard-of oligarchies, which 
is the only serious sin of the bourgeoisie of Britain. 
It may seem pragmatical, for example, to instance 
such a rowdy farce as the story of Horatio Spar- 
kins9 which tells how a tuft-hunting family enter- 
tained a rhetorical youth thinking he was a lord, 
and found he was a draper's assistant. No doubt 



they were very snobbish In thinking that a lord 
must be eloquent; but we cannot help feeling that 
Dickens Is almost equally snobbish In feeling it 
so very funny that a draper's assistant should be 
eloquent. A free man, one would think, would 
despise the family quite as much if Horatio had 
been a peer. Here, and here only, there is just 
a touch of the vulgarity, of the only vulgarity of 
the world out of which Dickens came. For the 
only element of lowness that there really is in our 
populace is exactly that they are full of superiori- 
ties and very conscious of class. Shades, imper- 
ceptible to the eyes of others, but as hard and 
haughty as a Brahmin caste, separate one kind of 
charwoman from another kind of charwoman. 
Dickens was destined to show with inspired sym- 
bolism all the immense virtues of the democracy. 
He was to show them as the most humorous part 
of our civilization ; which they certainly are. He 
was to show them as the most promptly and prac- 
tically compassionate part of our civilization; 
which they certainly are. The democracy has a 
hundred exuberant good qualities; the democracy 
has only one outstanding sin — It is not democratic. 




Round the birth of " Pickwick " broke one of 
those literary quarrels that were too common in 
the life of Dickens. Such quarrels indeed gener- 
ally arose from some definite mistake or misde- 
meanour on the part of somebody else; but they 
were also made possible by an indefinite touchiness 
and susceptibility in Dickens himself. He was so 
sensitive on points of personal authorship and re- 
sponsibility that even his sacred sense of humour 
deserted him. He turned people into mortal ene- 
mies whom he might have turned very easily into 
immortal jokes. It was not that he was lawless: 
in a sense it was that he was too legal; but he did 
not understand the principle of de minimis non 
curat lex. Anybody could draw him; any fool 
could make a fool of him. Any obscure madman 
who chose to say that he had written the whole of 
"Martin Chuzzlewit"; any penny-a-liner who 
chose to say that Dickens wore no shirt collar could 
call forth the most passionate and public denials 
as of a man pleading " not guilty " to witchcraft 



or high treason. Hence the letters of Dickens are 
filled with a certain singular type of quarrels and 
complaints, quarrels and complaints in which one 
cannot say that he was on the wrong side, but 
merely that even in being on the right side he was 
in the wrong place. He was not only a generous 
man, he was even a just man; to have made against 
anybody a charge or claim which was unfair would 
have been Insupportable to him. His weakness 
was that he found the unfair claim or charge, how- 
ever small, equally insupportable when brought 
against himself. No one can say of him that he 
was often wrong; we can only say of him as of 
many pugnacious people, that he was too often 

The incidents attending the Inauguration of the 
" Pickwick Papers " are not, perhaps, a perfect 
example of this trait, because Dickens was here 
a hand-to-mouth journalist, and the blow might 
possibly have been more disabling than those struck 
at him in his days of triumph. But all through 
those days of triumph, and to the day of his 
death, Dickens took this old tea-cup tempest 
with the most terrible gravity, drew up declara- 
tions, called witnesses, preserved pulverizing docu- 
ments, and handed on to his children the forgotten 
folly as if it had been a Highland feud. Yet the 



unjust claim made on him was so much more ridicu- 
lous even than it was unjust, that it seems strange 
that he should have remembered it for a month 
except for his amusement. The facts are simple 
and familiar to most people. The publishers — 
Chapman & Hall — wished to produce some kind 
of serial with comic illustrations by a popular cari- 
caturist named Seymour. This artist was chiefly 
famous for his rendering of the farcical side of 
sport, and to suit this specialty it was very vaguely 
suggested to Dickens by the publishers that he 
should write about a Nimrod Club, or some such 
thing, a club of amateur sportsmen, foredoomed 
to perpetual ignominies. Dickens objected in sub- 
stance upon two very sensible grounds — first, that 
sporting sketches were stale; and second, that he 
knew nothing about sport. He changed the idea 
to that of a general club for travel and investiga- 
tion, the Pickwick Club, and only retained one 
fated sportsman, Mr. Winkle, the melancholy rem- 
nant of the Nimrod Club that never was. The 
first seven pictures appeared with the signature of 
Seymour and the letterpress of Dickens, and in 
them Winkle and his woes were fairly, but not 
extraordinarily prominent. Before the eighth pic- 
ture appeared Seymour had blown his brains out. 
After a brief interval of the employment of a man 



named Buss, Dickens obtained the assistance of 
Hoblot K. Brown whom we all call " Phiz," and 
may almost, in a certain sense, be said to have gone 
into partnership with him. They were as suited 
to each other and to the common creation of a 
unique thing as Gilbert and Sullivan. No other 
illustrator ever created the true Dickens characters 
with the precise and correct quantum of exaggera- 
tion. No other illustrator ever breathed the true 
Dickens atmosphere, in which clerks are clerks and 
yet at the same time elves. 

To the tame mind the above affair does not 
seem to offer anything very promising in the way 
of a row. But Seymour's widow managed to 
evolve out of it the proposition that somehow or 
other her husband had written " Pickwick," or, at 
least, had been responsible for the genius and suc- 
cess of it. It does not appear that she had anything 
at all resembling a reason for this opinion except 
the unquestionable fact that the publishers had 
started with the idea of employing Seymour. This 
was quite true, and Dickens (who over and above 
his honesty was far too quarrelsome a man not to 
try to keep in the right, and who showed a sort 
of fierce carefulness in telling the truth in such 
cases) never denied it or attempted to conceal it. 
It was quite true, that at the beginning, instead 



of Seymour being employed to Illustrate Dickens, 
Dickens may be said to have been employed to 
illustrate Seymour. But that Seymour invented 
anything in the letter-press large or small, that he 
invented either the outline of Mr. Pickwick's char- 
acter or the number of Mr. Pickwick's cabman, 
that he invented either the story, or so much as a 
semi-colon in the story was not only never proved, 
but was never very lucidly alleged. Dickens fills 
his letters with all that there is to be said against 
Mrs. Seymour's idea ; it is not very clear whether 
there was ever anything definitely said for it. 

Upon the mere superficial fact and law of the 
affair, Dickens ought to have been superior to this 
silly business. But In a much deeper and a much 
more real sense he ought to have been superior to 
It. It did not really touch him or his greatness at 
all, even as an abstract allegation. If Seymour had 
started the story, had provided Dickens with his 
puppets, Tupman or Jingle, Dickens would have 
still have been Dickens and Seymour only Sey- 
mour. As a matter of fact, it happened to be a 
contemptible lie, but it would have been an equally 
contemptible truth. For the fact is that the great- 
ness of Dickens and especially the greatness of 
Pickwick is not of a kind that could be affected by 
somebody else suggesting the first idea. It could 



not be affected by somebody else writing the first 
chapter. If It could be shown that another man 
had suggested to Hawthorne (let us say) the 
primary conception of the " Scarlet Letter," Haw- 
thorne who worked It out would still be an exqui- 
site workman; but he would be by so much less 
a creator. But In a case like Pickwick there Is a 
simple test. If Seymour gave Dickens the main 
idea of Pickwick, what was It? There is no pri- 
mary conception of Pickwick for any one to sug- 
gest. Dickens not only did not get the general 
plan from Seymour, he did not get It at all. In 
Pickwick, and, indeed, In Dickens, generally It Is 
in the details that the author Is creative, it Is in 
the details that he Is vast. The power of the book 
lies In the perpetual torrent of Ingenious and in- 
ventive treatment; the theme (at least at the begin- 
ning) simply does not exist. The Idea of Tupman, 
the fat lady-killer, Is in Itself quite dreary and vul- 
gar; It Is the detailed Tupman, as he Is developed, 
who is unexpectedly amusing. The Idea of Win- 
kle, the clumsy sportsman, is In Itself quite stale; 
It Is as he goes on repeating himself that he be- 
comes original. We hear of men whose imagina- 
tion can touch with magic the dull facts of our 
life, but Dickens's yet more indomitable fancy 
could touch with magic even our dull fiction. Be- 



fore we are halfway through the book the stock 
characters of dead and damned farces astonish us 
like splendid strangers. 

Seymour's claim, then, viewed symbolically was 
even a compliment. It was true in spirit that 
Dickens obtained (or might have obtained) the 
start of Pickwick from somebody else, from any- 
body else. For he had a more gigantic energy 
than the energy of the intense artist, the energy 
which Is prepared to write something. He had 
the energy which is prepared to write anything. 
He could have finished any man's tale. He could 
have breathed a mad life into any man's characters. 
If it had been true that Seymour had planned out 
Pickwick, If Seymour had fixed the chapters and 
named and numbered the characters, his slave 
would have shown even in these shackles such a 
freedom as would have shaken the world. If 
Dickens had been forced to make his Incidents out 
of a chapter in a child's reading-book, or the names 
in a scrap of newspaper, he would have turned 
them In ten pages Into creatures of his own. Sey- 
mour, as I say, was In a manner right In spirit. 
Dickens would at this time get his materials from 
anywhere. In the sense that he cared little what 
materials they were. He would not have stolen; 
but if he had stolen he would never have Imitated. 



The power which he proceeded at once to exhibit 
was the one power in letters which literally cannot 
be imitated, the primary inexhaustible creative 
energy, the enormous prodigality of genius which 
no one but another genius could parody. To claim 
to have originated an idea of Dickens is like claim- 
ing to have contributed a glass of water to Niagara. 
Wherever this stream or that stream started the co- 
lossal cataract of absurdity went roaring night and 
day. The volume of his invention overwhelmed all 
doubt of his inventiveness; Dickens was evidently 
a great man; unless he was a thousand men. 

The actual circumstances of the writing and pub- 
lishing of " Pickwick " show that while Seymour's 
specific claim was absurd, Dickens's indignant ex- 
actitude about every jot and tittle of authorship 
was also inappropriate and misleading. *' The 
Pickwick Papers," when all is said and done, did 
emerge out of a haze of suggestions and proposals 
in which more than one person was involved. The 
publishers failed to base the story on a Nimrod 
Club, but they succeeded in basing it on a club. 
Seymour, by virtue of his idiosyncrasy, if he did 
not create, brought about the creation of Mr. 
Winkle. Seymour sketched Mr. Pickwick as a 
tall, thin man. Mr. Chapman (apparently with- 
out any word from Dickens boldly turned him 



Into a short, fat man. Chapman took the type 
from a corpulent old dandy named Foster, who 
wore tights and gaiters and lived at Richmond. 
In this sense were we affected by this Idle aspect of 
the thing we might call Chapman the real origina- 
tor of " Pickwick." But as I have suggested, 
originating " Pickwick " Is not the point. It was 
quite easy to originate " Pickwick." The diffi- 
culty was to write it. 

However such things may be, there can be no 
question of the result of this chaos. In " The 
Pickwick Papers " Dickens sprang suddenly from 
a comparatively low level to a very high one. To 
the level of " Sketches by Boz " he never after- 
wards descended. To the level of " The Pickwick 
Papers " it Is doubtful If he ever afterwards rose. 
" Pickwick," indeed, is not a good novel; but It is 
not a bad novel, for it is not a novel at all. In one 
sense, indeed. It Is something nobler than a novel, 
for no novel with a plot and a proper termination 
could emit that sense of everlasting youth — a sense 
as of the gods gone wandering In England. This 
is not a novel, for all novels have an end; and 
" Pickwick," properly speaking, has no end — he is 
equal unto the angels. The point at which, as a 
fact, we find the printed matter terminates is not 
an end in any artistic sense of the word. Even as 



a boy I believed there were some more pages that 
were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for 
them still. The book might have been cut short 
anywhere else. It might have been cut short after 
Mr. Pickwick was released by Mr. Nupklns, or 
after Mr. Pickwick was fished out of the water, or 
at a hundred other places. And we should still 
have known that this was not really the story's 
end. We should have known that Mr. Pickwick 
was still having the same high adventures on the 
same high roads. As It happens, the book ends 
after Mr. Pickwick has taken a house In the neigh- 
bourhood of Dulwich. But we know he did not 
stop there. We know he broke out, that he took 
again the road of the high adventures; we know 
that If we take It ourselves in any acre of England, 
we may come suddenly upon him in a lane. 

But this relation of " Pickwick " to the strict 
form of fiction demands a further word, which 
should indeed be said In any case before the con- 
sideration of any or all of the Dickens tales. 
Dickens's work is not to be reckoned In novels at 
all. Dickens's work is to be reckoned always by 
characters, sometimes by groups, oftener by epi- 
sodes, but never by novels. You cannot discuss 
whether " Nicholas Nickleby " is a good novel, or 
whether " Our Mutual Friend " is a bad novel. 



Strictly, there is no such novel as *' Nicholas 
Nickleby." There is no such novel as " Our 
Mutual Friend." They are simply lengths cut 
from the flowing and mixed substance called 
Dickens — a substance of which any given length 
will be certain to contain a given proportion of 
brilliant and of bad stuff. You can say, accord- 
ing to your opinions, *' the Crummies part is per- 
fect," or " the Boffins are a mistake," just as a 
man watching a river go by him could count here 
a floating flower, and there a streak of scum. But 
you cannot artistically divide the output into books. 
The best of his work can be found in the worst 
of his works. " The Tale of Two Cities " is a 
good novel; " Little Dorrit " is not a good novel. 
But the description of " The Circumlocution 
Office " in " Little Dorrit " Is quite as good as the 
description of *' Tellson's Bank " in " The Tale 
of Two Cities." " The Old Curiosity Shop " is 
not so good as *' David Copperfield," but Swivel- 
ler Is quite as good as Micawber. Nor Is there any 
reason why these superb creatures, as a general 
rule, should be In one novel any more than another. 
There Is no reason why Sam Weller, In the 
course of his wanderings, should not wander Into 
" Nicholas Nickleby." There Is no reason why 
Major Bagstock, In his brisk way, should not walk 

8 1 


straight out of " Dombey and Son " and straight 
into " Martin Chuzzlewit.'' To this generaliza- 
tion some modification should be added. " Pick- 
wick " stands by itself, and has even a sort of 
unity in not pretending to unity. " David Cop- 
perfield," in a less degree, stands by itself, as being 
the only book in which Dickens wrote of himself; 
and " The Tale of Two Cities " stands by itself 
as being the only book in which Dickens slightly 
altered himself. But as a whole, this should be 
firmly grasped, that the units of Dickens, the pri- 
mary elements, are not the stories, but the charac- 
ters who affect the stories — or, more often still, 
the characters who do not affect the stories. 

This is a plain matter; but, unless it be stated 
and felt, Dickens may be greatly misunderstood 
and greatly underrated. For not only is his whole 
machinery directed to facilitating the self-display 
of certain characters, but something more deep and 
more unmodern still is also true of him. It is also 
true that all the moving machinery exists only to 
display entirely static character. Things in the 
Dickens story shift and change only in order to 
give us glimpses of great characters that do not 
change at all. If we had a sequel of Pickwick ten 
years afterwards, Pickwick would be exactly the 
same age. We know he would not have fallen 



into that strange and beautiful second childhood 
which soothed and simplified the end of Colonel 
Newcome. Newcome, throughout the book, Is In 
an atmosphere of time: Pickwick, throughout the 
book, Is not. This will probably be taken by most 
modern people as praise of Thackeray and dis- 
praise of Dickens. But this only shows how few 
modern people understand Dickens. It also shows 
how few understand the faiths and the fables of 
mankind. The matter can only be roughly stated 
In one way. Dickens did not strictly make a litera- 
ture ; he made a mythology. 

For a few years our corner of Western Europe 
has had a fancy for this thing we call fiction ; that 
Is, for writing down our own lives or similar lives 
In order to look at them. But though we call it 
fiction. It differs from older literatures chiefly In 
being less fictitious. It Imitates not only life, but 
the limitations of life; It not only reproduces life, 
It reproduces death. But outside us, In every other 
country, In every other age, there has been going 
on from the beginning a more fictitious kind of 
fiction. I mean the kind now called folklore, the 
literature of the people. Our modern novels, 
which deal with men as they are, are chiefly pro- 
duced by a small and educated section of the soci- 
ety. But this other literature deals with men 



greater than they are — with demi-gods and heroes; 
and that is far too important a matter to be trusted 
to the educated classes. The fashioning of these 
portents is a popular trade, like ploughing or brick- 
laying; the men who made hedges, the men who 
made ditches, were the men who made deities. 
Men could not elect their kings, but they could 
elect their gods. So we find ourselves faced with 
a fundamental contrast between what is called fic- 
tion and what is called folklore. The one exhibits 
an abnormal degree of dexterity operating within 
our daily limitations; the other exhibits quite nor- 
mal desires extended beyond those limitations. 
/ Fiction means the common things as seen by the 
uncommon people. Fairy tales mean the uncom- 
mon things as seen by the common people, j 

As our world advances through history towards 
its present epoch, it becomes more specialist, less 
democratic, and folklore turns gradually into fic- 
tion. But it is only slowly that the old elfin fire 
fades into the light of common realism. For ages 
after our characters have dressed up in the clothes 
of mortals they betray the blood of the gods. 
Even our phraseology is full of relics of this. 
When a modern novel is devoted to the bewilder- 
ments of a weak young clerk who cannot decide 
which woman he wants to marry, or which new 



religion he believes In, we still give this knock- 
kneed cad the name of ^' the hero " — the name 
which Is the crown of Achilles. The popular pref- 
erence for a story with '' a happy ending " Is not, 
or at least was not, a mere sweet-stuff optimism; 
it Is the remains of the old Idea of the triumph of 
the dragon-slayer, the ultimate apotheosis of the 
man beloved of heaven. 

But there Is another and more Intangible trace 
of this fading supernaturalism — a trace very vivid 
to the reader, but very elusive to the critic. It Is 
a certain air of endlessness In the episodes, even in 
the shortest episodes — a sense that, although we 
leave them, they still go on. Our modern attrac- 
tion to short stories Is not an accident of form; it 
Is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fra- 
gility; it means that existence Is only an Impression, 
and, perhaps, only an illusion. A short story of 
to-day has the air of a dream ; it has the irrevoca- 
ble beauty of a falsehood; we get a glimpse of grey 
streets of London or red plains of India, as In an 
opium vision; we see people, — arresting people, 
with fiery and appealing faces. But when the 
story Is ended, the people are ended. We have no 
Instinct of anything ultlm.ate and enduring behind 
the episodes. The moderns, in a word, describe 
life in short stories because they are possessed with 



the sentiment that life Itself Is an uncommonly 
short story, and perhaps not a true one. But In 
this elder literature, even in the comic literature 
(Indeed, especially In the comic literature), the 
reverse is true. The characters are felt to be fixed 
things of which we have fleeting glimpses ; that is, 
they are felt to be divine. Uncle Toby Is talking 
for ever, as the elves are dancing for ever. We 
feel that whenever we hammer on the house of 
Falstaff, Falstaff will be at home. We feel it as a 
Pagan would feel that. If a cry broke the silence 
after ages of unbelief, Apollo would still be listen- 
ing In his temple. These writers may tell short 
stories, but we feel they are only parts of a long 
story. And herein lies the peculiar significance, 
the peculiar sacredness even, of penny dreadfuls 
and the common printed matter made for our 
errand-boys. Here in dim and desperate forms, 
under the ban of our base culture, stormed at by 
silly magistrates, sneered at by silly schoolmasters, 
— here Is the old popular literature still popular; 
here is the unmistakable voluminousness, the thou- 
sand and one tales of Dick Deadshot, like the 
thousand and one tales of Robin Hood. Here 
IS the splendid and static boy, the boy who remains 
a boy through a thousand volumes and a thousand 
years. Here in mean alleys and dim shops, shad- 



owed and shamed by the police, mankind is still 
driving its dark trade in heroes. And elsewhere, 
and in all other ages, in braver fashion, under 
cleaner skies the same eternal tale-telling goes on, 
and the whole mortal world Is a factory of Im- 

Dickens was a mythologlst rather than a novel- 
ist; he was the last of the mythologlsts, and per- 
haps the greatest. He did not always manage to 
make his characters men, but he always managed, 
at the least, to make them gods. They are crea- 
tures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live 
statically. In a perpetual summer of being them- 
selves. It was not the aim of Dickens to show the 
effect of time and circumstance upon a character; 
It was not even his aim to show the effect of a 
character on time and circumstance. It is worth 
remark, In passing, that whenever he tried to de- 
scribe change In a character, he made a mess of it, 
as In the repentance of Dombey or the apparent 
deterioration of Boffin. It was his aim to show 
character hung in a kind of happy void, In a world 
apart from time — yes, and essentially apart from 
circumstance, though the phrase may seem odd in 
connection with the godlike horse-play of *' Pick- 
wick.'' But all the Pickwickian events, wild as 
they often are, were only designed to display the 



greater wlldness of souls, or sometimes merely to 
bring the reader within touch, so to speak, of that 
wlldness. The author would have fired Mr. Pick- 
wick out of a cannon to get him to Wardle's by 
Christmas; he would have taken the roof off to 
drop him into Bob Sawyer's party. But once put 
Pickwick at Wardle's, with his punch and a group 
of gorgeous personalities, and nothing will move 
him from his chair. Once he is at Sawyer's party, 
he forgets how he got there; he forgets Mrs. 
Bardell and all his story. For the story was but 
an incantation to call up a god, and the god (Mr. 
Jack Hopkins) Is present in divine power. Once 
the great characters are face to face, the ladder by 
which they climbed Is forgotten and falls down, 
the structure of the story drops to pieces, the plot 
is abandoned, the other characters deserted at 
every kind of crisis ; the whole crowded thorough- 
fare of the tale Is blocked by two or three talkers, 
who take their Immortal ease as if they were al- 
ready in Paradise. For they do not exist for the 
story ; the story exists for them ; and they know it. 
To every man alive, one must hope, It has In 
some manner happened that he has talked with 
his more fascinating friends round a table on some 
night when all the numerous personalities unfolded 
themselves like great tropical flowers. All fell Into 



their parts as In some delightful impromptu play. 
Every man was more himself than he had ever 
been In this vale of tears. Every man was a beau- 
tiful caricature of himself. The man who has 
known such nights w^ll understand the exaggera- 
tions of " Pickwick." The man who has not 
known such nights will not enjoy " Pickwick " 
nor (I Imagine) heaven. For, as I have said, 
Dickens is, In this matter, close to popular religion, 
which Is the ultimate and reliable religion. He 
conceives an endless joy; he conceives creatures 
as permanent as Puck or Pan — creatures whose 
will to live aeons upon aeons cannot satisfy. He 
Is not come, as a writer, that his creatures may 
copy life and copy Its narrowness; he is come 
that they may have life, and that they may 
have It more abundantly. It is absurd Indeed 
that Christians should be called the enemies of 
life because they wish life to last for ever; It is 
more absurd still to call the old comic writers dull 
because they wished their unchanging characters 
to last for ever. Both popular religion, with Its 
endless joys, and the old comic story, with Its end- 
less jokes, have In our time faded together. We 
are too weak to desire that undying vigour. 
We believe that you can have too much of a good 
thing — a blasphemous belief, which at one blow 



wrecks all the heavens that men have hoped for. 
The grand old deliers of God were not afraid of 
an eternity of torment. We have come to be afraid 
of an eternity of joy. It is not my business here 
to take sides in this division between those who 
like life and long novels and those who like death 
and short stories ; my only business is to point out 
that those who see in Dickens's unchanging charac- 
ters and recurring catch-words a mere stiffness and 
lack of living movement miss the point and nature 
of his work. His tradition is another tradition 
altogether; his aim is another aim altogether to 
those of the modern novelists who trace the al- 
chemy of experience and the autumn tints of char- 
acter. He is there, like the common people of all 
ages, to make deities ; he is there, as I have said, to 
exaggerate life in the direction of life. The spirit 
he at bottom celebrates is that of two friends drink- 
ing wine together and talking through the night. 
But for him they are two deathless friends talking 
through an endless night and pouring wine from 
an inexhaustible bottle. 

This, then, is the first firm fact to grasp about 
" Pickwick " — about " Pickwick " more than 
about any of the other stories. It is, first and fore- 
most, a supernatural story. Mr. Pickwick was a 
fairy. So was old Mr. Weller. This does not 



Imply that they were suited to swing In a trapeze 
of gossamer; It merely Implies that if they had 
fallen out of it on their heads they would not have 
died. But, to speak more strictly, Mr. Samuel 
Pickwick Is not the fairy; he is the fairy prince; 
that is to say, he Is the abstract wanderer and won- 
derer, the Ulysses of Comedy — the half-human 
and half-elfin creature — human enough to wander, 
human enough to wonder, but still sustained with 
that merry fatalism that Is natural to Immortal 
beings — sustained by that hint of divinity which 
tells him in the darkest hour that he is doomed to 
live happily ever afterwards. He has set out walk- 
ing to the end of the world, but he knows he will 
find an inn there. 

And this brings us to the best and boldest 
element of originality In " Pickwick." It has not, 
I think, been observed, and it may be that Dickens 
did not observe It. Certainly he did not plan it; 
It grew gradually, perhaps out of the unconscious 
part of his soul, and warmed the whole story like 
a slow fire. Of course It transformed the whole 
story also; transformed it out of all likeness to 
Itself. About this latter point was waged one of 
the numberless little wars of Dickens. It was a 
part of his pugnacious vanity that he refused to 
admit the truth of the mildest criticism. More- 



over, he used his inexhaustible ingenuity to find an 
apologia that was generally an afterthought. In- 
stead of laughingly admitting, in answer to criti- 
cism, the glorious improbability of Pecksniff, he 
retorted with a sneer, clever and very unjust, that 
he was not surprised that the Pecksniffs should 
deny the portrait of Pecksniff. When it was ob- 
jected that the pride of old Paul Dombey breaks 
as abruptly as a stick, he tried to make out that 
there had been an absorbing psychological strug- 
gle going on in that gentleman all the time, which 
the reader was too stupid to perceive. Which is, 
I am afraid, rubbish. And so, in a similar vein, he 
answered those who pointed out to him the obvious 
and not very shocking fact that our sentiments 
about Pickwick are very different in the second part 
of the book from our sentiments in the first; that 
we find ourselves at the beginning setting out in 
the company of a farcical old fool, if not a farcical 
old humbug, and that we find ourselves at the end 
saying farewell to a fine old English merchant, a 
monument of genial sanity. Dickens answered 
with the same ingenious self-justification as in the 
other cases — that surely it often happened that a 
man met us first arrayed in his more grotesque 
qualities, and that fuller acquaintance unfolded his 
more serious merits. This, of course, is quite true ; 



but I think any honest admirer of " Pickwick " 
will feel that it is not an answer. For the fault 
in " Pickwick " (if it be a fault) is a change, not 
in the hero but in the whole atmosphere. The 
point is not that Pickwick turns into a different 
kind of man; it is that " The Pickwick Papers " 
turns into a different kind of book. And however 
artistic both parts may be, this combination must, 
in strict art, be called inartistic. A man is quite 
artistically justified in writing a tale in which a 
man as cowardly as Bob Acres becomes a man as 
brave as Hector. But a man is not artistically 
justified in writing a tale which begins in the style 
of " The Rivals " and ends in the style of the 
" Iliad." In other words, we do not mind the 
hero changing in the course of a book; but we are 
not prepared for the author changing in the course 
of the book. And the author did change in the 
course of this book. He made, in the midst of this 
book a great discovery, which was the discovery 
of his destiny, or, what is more important, of his 
duty. That discovery turned him from the author 
of " Sketches by Boz " to the author of " David 
Copperfield." And that discovery constituted the 
thing of which I have spoken — the outstanding 
and arresting original feature in " The Pickwick 



" Pickwick," I have said, is a romance of adven- 
ture, and Samuel Pickwick is the romantic ad- 
venturer. So much is indeed obvious. But the 
strange and stirring discovery which Dickens made 
was this — that having chosen a fat old man of the 
middle classes as a good thing of which to make 
a butt, he found that a fat old man of the middle 
classes is the very best thing of which to make a 
romantic adventurer. " Pickwick " is supremely 
original in that it is the adventures of an old man. 
It is a fairy tale in which the victor is not the 
youngest of the three brothers, but one of the 
oldest of their uncles. The result is both noble 
and new and true. There is nothing which so 
much needs simplicity as adventure. And there 
is no one who so much possesses simplicity as an 
honest and elderly man of business. For romance 
he is better than a troop of young troubadours; 
for the swaggering young fellow anticipates his 
adventures, just as he anticipates his income. 
Hence, both the adventures and the income, 
when he comes up to them, are not there. But 
a man in late middle-age has grown used to the 
plain necessities, and his first holiday is a second 
youth. A good man, as Thackeray said with such 
thorough and searching truth, grows simpler as he 
grows older. Samuel Pickwick in his youth was 



probably an insufferable young coxcomb. He 
knew then, or thought he knew, all about the 
confidence tricks of swindlers like Jingle. He 
knew then, or thought he knew, all about the 
amatory designs of sly ladies like Mrs. Bardell. 
But years and real life have relieved him of this 
idle and evil knowledge. He has had the high 
good luck in losing the follies of youth, to lose 
the wisdom of youth also. Dickens has caught, 
in a manner at once wild and convincing, this 
queer innocence of the afternoon of life. The 
round, moon-like face, the round, moon-like spec- 
tacles of Samuel Pickwick move through the tale 
as emblems of a certain spherical simplicity. They 
are fixed in that grave surprise that may be seen 
in babies ; that grave surprise which is the only real 
happiness that is possible to man. Pickwick's 
round face is like a round and honourable mirror. 
In which are reflected all the fantasies of earthly 
existence ; for surprise is, strictly speaking, the only 
kind of reflection. All this grew gradually on 
Dickens. It is odd to recall to our minds the 
original plan, the plan of the Nimrod Club, and 
the author who was to be wholly occupied in play- 
ing practical jokes on his characters. He had 
chosen (or somebody else had chosen) that corpu- 
lent old simpleton as a person peculiarly fitted to 



fall down trap-doors, to shoot over butter slides, 
to struggle with apple-pie beds, to be tipped out 
of carts and dipped into horse-ponds. But Dick- 
ens, and Dickens only, discovered as he went on 
how fitted the fat old man was to rescue ladies, 
to defy tyrants, to dance, to leap, to experiment 
with life, to be a dens ex machind, and even a 
knight-errant. Dickens made this discovery. 
Dickens went into the Pickwick Club to scoff, and 
Dickens remained to pray. 

Moliere and his marquises are very much 
amused when M. Jourdain, the fat old middle- 
class fellow, discovers with delight that he has been 
talking prose all his life. I have often wondered 
whether Moliere saw how in this fact M. Jour- 
dain towers above them all and touches the stars. 
He has the freshness to enjoy a fresh fact, the 
freshness to enjoy an old one. He can feel that 
the common thing prose is an accomplishment like 
verse; and it is an accomplishment like verse; it 
is the miracle of language. He can feel the 
subtle taste of water, and roll it on his tongue like 
wine. His simple vanity and voracity, his inno- 
cent love of living, his ignorant love of learning, 
are things far fuller of romance than the weari- 
ness and foppishness of the sniggering cavaliers. 
When he consciously speaks prose, he uncon- 



sciously thinks poetry. It would be better for 
us all if we were as conscious that supper is supper 
or that life is life, as this true romantic was that 
prose is actually prose. M. Jourdain is here the 
type, Mr. Pickwick is elsewhere the type, of this 
true and neglected thing, the romance of the mid- 
dle classes. It is the custom in our little epoch to 
sneer at the middle classes. Cockney artists pro- 
fess to find the bourgeoisie dull; as if artists had 
any business to find anything dull. Decadents 
talk contemptuously of its conventions and its set 
tasks; it never occurs to them that conventions 
and set tasks are the very way to keep that green- 
ness in the grass and that redness in the roses — 
which they had lost for ever. Stevenson, in his 
incomparable *' Lantern Bearers," describes the 
ecstasy of a schoolboy in the mere fact of button- 
ing a dark lantern under a dark great-coat. If 
you wish for that ecstasy of the schoolboy, you 
must have the boy; but you must also have the 
school. Strict opportunities and defined hours are 
the very outline of that enjoyment. A man like 
Mr. Pickwick has been at school all his life, and 
when he comes out he astonishes the youngsters. 
His heart, as that acute psychologist, Mr. Weller, 
points out, had been born later than his body. It 
will be remembered that Mr. Pickwick also, when 



on the escapade of Winkle and Miss Allen, took 
Immoderate pleasure In the performances of a 
dark lantern which was not dark enough, and was 
nothing but a nuisance to everybody. His soul 
also was with Stevenson's boys on the grey sands 
of Haddington, talking In the dark by the sea. 
He also was of the league of the " Lantern Bear- 
ers." Stevenson, I remember, says that In the 
shops of that town they could purchase " penny 
Pickwicks (that remarkable cigar)." Let us hope 
they smoked them, and that the rotund ghost of 
Pickwick hovered over the rings of smoke. 

Pickwick goes through life with that god-like 
gullibility which Is the key to all adventures. The 
greenhorn Is the ultimate victor In everything; It 
is he that gets the most out of life. Because Pick- 
wick Is led away by Jingle, he will be led to the 
White Hart Inn, and see the only Weller clean- 
ing boots in the courtyard. Because he Is bam- 
boozled by Dodson and Fogg, he will enter the 
prison house like a paladin, and rescue the man 
and the woman who have wronged him most. 
His soul will never starve for exploits or excite- 
ments who Is wise enough to be made a fool of. 
He will make himself happy In the traps that have 
been laid for him; he will roll In their nets and 
sleep. All doors will fly open to him who has a 



mildness more defiant than mere courage. The 
whole is unerringly expressed in one fortunate 
phrase — he will be always '' taken in." To be 
taken in everywhere is to see the inside of every- 
thing. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With 
torches and trumpets, like a guest, the greenhorn 
is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out 
by it. 




There Is one aspect of Charles Dickens which 
must be of Interest even to that subterranean race 
which does not admire his books. Even If we are 
not Interested In Dickens as a great event In Eng- 
lish literature, we must still be Interested In him 
as a great event In English history. If he had 
not his place with Fielding and Thackeray, he 
would still have his place with Wat Tyler and 
Wilkes; for the man led a mob. He did what no 
Enghsh statesman, perhaps, has really done; he 
called out the people. He was popular In a sense 
of which we moderns have not even a notion. In 
that sense there Is no popularity now. There are 
no popular authors to-day. We call such authors 
as Mr. Guy Boothby or Mr. William Le Queux 
popular authors. But this is popularity altogether 
in a weaker sense; not only in quantity, but In 
quahty. The old popularity was positive ; the new 
is negative. There Is a great deal of difference 
between the eager man who wants to read a book, 
and the tired man who wants a book to read. A 



man reading a Le Queux mystery wants to get to 
the end of it. A man reading the Dickens novel 
wished that it might never end. Men read a 
Dickens story six times because they knew it so 
well. If a man can read a Le Queux story six 
times it is only because he can forget it six times. 
iTn short, the Dickens novel was popular, not be- 
^ cause it was an unreal world, but because it was 
- a real world ; a world In which the soul could live. 
'The modern " shocker " at Its very best Is an Inter- 
lude in life. But In the days when Dickens's work 
twas coming out In serial, people talked as if real 
I life were itself the interlude between one issue of 
j " Pickwick " and another. 

j In reaching the period of the publication of 

\ " Pickwick," we reach this sudden apotheosis of 

' Dickens. Henceforward he filled the literary 

I world In a way hard to Imagine. Fragments of 

that huge fashion remain In our daily language ; In 

I the talk of every trade or public question are 

I embedded the wrecks of that enormous religion. 

Men give out the airs of Dickens without even 

opening his books; just as Catholics can live in a 

tradition of Christianity without having looked at 

the New Testament. The man in the street has 

more memories of Dickens, whom he has not read, 

than of Marie Corelll, whom he has. There Is 



nothing in any way parallel to this omnipresence 
and vitality in the great comic characters of Boz. 
There are no modern Bumbles and Pecksniffs, no 
modern Gamps and Micawbers. Mr. Rudyard 
Kipling (to take an author of a higher type than 
those before mentioned) is called, and called justly, 
a popular author; that is to say, he Is widely read, 
greatly enjoyed, and highly remunerated; he has 
achieved the paradox of at once making poetry and ' 
making money. But let any one who wishes to 
see the difference try the experiment of assuming 
the Kipling characters to be common property like 
the Dickens characters. Let any one go Into an 
average parlour and allude to Strickland as he 
would allude to Mr. Bumble, the Beadle. Let 
any one say that somebody Is " a perfect Learoyd," ] 
as he would say " a perfect Pecksniff." Let any 
one write a comic paragraph for a halfpenny paper, ., j 
and allude to Mrs. Hawksbee Instead of to Mrs. ' 
Gamp. He will soon discover that the modern 
world has forgotten Its own fiercest booms more 
completely than It has forgotten this formless tra- 
dition from Its fathers. The mere dregs of it 
come to more than any contemporary excitement; 
the gleaning of the grapes of " Pickwick " Is more 
than the whole vintage of " Soldiers Three." 
There Is one Instance, and I think only one, of an 



exception to this generalization ; there is one figure 
In our popular literature which would really be 
recognized by the populace. Ordinary men would 
understand you if you referred currently to Sher- 
lock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would no 
doubt be justified In rearing his head to the stars, 
remembering that Sherlock Holmes is the only 
really familiar figure in modern fiction. But let 
him droop that head again with a gentle sadness, 
remembering that If Sherlock Holmes is the only 
familiar figure In modern fiction, Sherlock Holmes 
Is also the only familiar figure In the Sherlock 
Holmes tales. Not many people could say offhand 
what was the name of the owner of Silver Blaze, 
or whether Mrs. Watson was dark or fair. But 
if Dickens had written the Sherlock Holmes 
stories, every character In them would have been 
equally arresting and memorable. A Sherlock 
Holmes would have cooked the dinner for Sher- 
lock Holmes; a Sherlock Holmes would have 
driven his cab. If Dickens brought in a man 
merely to carry a letter, he had time for a touch 
or two, and made him a giant. Dickens not only 
conquered the world, he conquered It with minor 
characters. Mr. John Smauker, the servant of 
Mr. Cyrus Bantam, though he merely passes 
across the stage, is almost as vivid to us as Mr, 



Samuel Weller, the servant of Mr. Samuel Pick- 
wick. The young man with the lumpy forehead, 
who only says " Esker " to Mr. Podsnap's foreign 
gentleman, is as good as Mr. Podsnap himself. 
They appear only for a fragment of time, but 
they belong to eternity. We have them only for 
an instant, but they have us for ever. 

In dealing with Dickens, then, we are dealing 
with a man whose public success was a marvel and 
almost a monstrosity. And here I perceive that 
my friend, the purely artistic critic, primed with 
Flaubert and Turgenev, can contain himself no 
longer. He leaps to his feet, upsetting his cup of 
cocoa, and asks contemptuously what all this has to 
do with criticism. " Why begin your study of an 
author," he says, "with trash about popularity? 
Boothby is popular, and Le Queux is popular, and 
Mother Siegel is popular. If Dickens was even 
more popular, it may only mean that Dickens was 
even worse. The people like bad literature. If 
your object is to show that Dickens was good 
literature, you should rather apologize for his 
popularity, and try to explain it away. You should 
seek to show that Dickens's work was good litera- 
ture, although it was popular. Yes, that is your 
task, to prove that Dickens was admirable, al- 
though he was admired! '' 



I ask the artistic critic to be patient for a little 
and to believe that I have a serious reason for 
registering this historic popularity. To that we 
shall come presently. But as a manner of approach 
I may perhaps ask leave to examine this actual and 
fashionable statement, to which I have supposed 
him to have recourse — the statement that the peo- 
ple like bad literature, and even like literature 
because it Is bad. This way of stating the thing 
is an error, and In that error lies matter of much 
Import to Dickens and his destiny in letters. The 
public does not like bad literature. The public 
likes a certain kind of literature and likes that kind 
of literature even when It Is bad better than an- 
other kind of literature even when It Is good. Nor 
Is this unreasonable ; for the line between different 
types of literature Is as real as the line between 
tears and laughter ; and to tell people who can only 
get bad comedy that you have some first-class 
tragedy Is as Irrational as to offer a man who is 
shivering over weak warm coffee a really superior 
sort of Ice. 

Ordinary people dislike the delicate modern 
work, not because it Is good or because it is bad, 
but because It Is not the thing that they asked for. 
If, for Instance, you find them pent In sterile streets 
and hungering for adventure and a violent se- 



crecy, and if you then give them their choice be- 
tween " A Study in Scarlet," a good detective 
story, and " The Autobiography of Mark Ruth- 
erford," a good psychological monologue, no 
doubt they will prefer " A Study in Scarlet." But 
they will not do so because " The Autobiography 
of Mark Rutherford " is a very good monologue, 
but because it is evidently a very poor detective 
story. They will be indifferent to '' Les Aveugles," 
not because it is good drama, but because it is bad 
melodrama. They do not like good introspective 
sonnets; but neither do they like bad introspective 
sonnets, of which there are many. When they 
walk behind the brass of the Salvation Army band 
instead of listening to harmonies at Queen's Hall, 
it is always assumed that they prefer bad music. 
But it may be merely that they prefer military 
music, music marching down the open street, and 
that if Dan Godfrey's band could be smitten with 
salvation and lead them, they would like that even 
better. And while they might easily get more 
satisfaction out of a screaming article In The War 
Cry than out of a page of Emerson about the Over- 
soul, this would not be because the page of Emer- 
son is another and superior kind of literature. It 
would be because the page of Emerson is another 
(and inferior) kind of religion. 

1 06 


Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of 
what happens when a great hterary genius has a 
literary taste akin to that of the community. For 
this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was 
not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. 
Dickens did not write what the people wanted. 
Dickens wanted what the people wanted. And 
with this was connected that other fact which 
must never be forgotten, and which I have more 
than once insisted on, that Dickens and his school 
had a hilarious faith in democracy and thought 
of the service of it as a sacred priesthood. Hence 
there was this vital point in his popularism, that 
there was no condescension in it. The belief that 
the rabble will only read rubbish can be read be- 
tween the lines of all our contemporary writers, 
even of those writers whose rubbish the rabble 
reads. Mr. Fergus Hume has no more respect 
for the populace than Mr. George Moore. The 
only difference lies between those writers who will 
consent to talk down to the people, and those 
writers who will not consent to talk down to the 
people. But Dickens never talked down to the 
people. He talked up to the people. He ap- 
proached the people like a deity and poured out 
his riches and his blood. This Is what makes the 
Immortal bond between him and the masses of 



men. He had not merely produced something 
they could understand, but he took it seriously, 
and toiled and agonized to produce it. They were 
not only enjoying one of the best writers, they 
were enjoying the best he could do. His raging 
and sleepless nights, his wild walks In the dark- 
ness, his note-books crowded, his nerves in rags, 
all this extraordinary output was but a fit sacrifice 
to the ordinary man. He climbed towards the 
lower classes. He panted upwards on weary wings 
to reach the heaven of the poor. 

His power, then, lay in the fact that he ex- 
pressed with an energy and brilliancy quite uncom- 
mon the things close to the common mind. But 
with this mere phrase, the common mind, we 
collide with a current error. Commonness and the 
common mind are now generally spoken of as 
meaning in some manner inferiority and the in- 
ferior mind; the mind of the mere mob. But the 
common mind means the mind of all the artists 
and heroes; or else It would not be common. 
Plato had the common mind; Dante had the 
common mind; or that mind was not common. 
Commonness means the quality common to the 
saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the 
fool; and It was this that Dickens grasped and 
developed. In everybody there is a certain thing 



that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sun- 
light: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody 
does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody 
means everybody : everybody means Mrs. Meynell. 
This lady, a cloistered and fastidious writer, has 
written one of the best eulogies of Dickens that 
exist, an essay In praise of his pungent perfection 
of epithet. And when I say that everybody under- 
stands Dickens I do not mean that he Is suited to 
the untaught Intelligence. I mean that he is so 
plain that even scholars can understand him. 

The best expression of the fact, however, is to 
be found in noting the two things in which he Is 
most triumphant. In order of artistic value, next 
after his humour, comes his horror. And both 
his humour and his horror are of a kind strictly 
to be called human; that is, they belong to the 
basic part of us, below the lowest roots of our 
variety. His horror for Instance is a healthy 
churchyard horror, a fear of the grotesque defa- 
mation called death ; and this every man has, even 
If he also has the more delicate and depraved fears 
that come of an evil spiritual outlook. We may 
be afraid of a fine shade vv^ith Henry James; that 
Is, we may be afraid of the world. We may be 
afraid of a taut silence with Maeterlinck; that is, 
we may be afraid of our own souls. But every 



one will certainly be afraid of a Cock Lane Ghost, 
including Henry James and Maeterlinck. This 
latter Is literally a mortal fear, a fear of death; 
it Is not the Immortal fear, or fear of damnation, 
which belongs to all the more refined Intellects of 
our day. In a word, Dickens does, in the exact 
sense, make the flesh creep; he does not, like the 
decadents, make the soul crawl. And the creep- 
ing of the flesh on being reminded of its fleshly 
failure is a strictly universal thing which we can 
all feel, while some of us are as yet uninstructed 
in the art of spiritual crawling. In the same way 
the Dickens mirth is a part of man and universal. 
All men can laugh at broad humour, even the 
subtle humourists. Even the modern flaneur, who 
can smile at a particular combination of green and 
yellow, would laugh at Mr. Lammle's request for 
Mr. Fledgeby's nose. In a word — the common 
things are common — even to the uncommon 

These two primary dispositions of Dickens, to 
make the flesh creep and to make the sides ache, 
were a sort of twins of his spirit ; they were never 
far apart and the fact of their aflinity is interest- 
ingly exhibited in the first two novels. 

Generally he mixed the two up in a book and 
mixed a great many other things with them. As 



a rule he cared little If he kept six stories of quite 
different colours running In the same book. The 
effect was sometimes similar to that of playing six 
tunes at once. He does not mind the coarse tragic 
figure of Jonas Chuzzlewit crossing the mental 
stage which is full of the allegorical pantomime of 
Eden, Mr. Chollop and The Watertoast Gazette, a 
scene which Is as much of a satire as " Gulliver," 
and nearly as much of a fairy tale. He does not 
mind binding up a rather pompous sketch of pros- 
titution In the same book with an adorable Impos- 
sibility like Bunsby. But " Pickwick " Is so far 
a coherent thing that It Is coherently comic and 
consistently rambling. And as a consequence his 
next book was, upon the whole, coherently and 
consistently horrible. As his natural turn for ter- 
rors was kept down In " Pickwick," so his natural 
turn for joy and laughter Is kept down in '* Oliver 
Twist." In " Oliver Twist " the smoke of the 
thieves' kitchen hangs over the whole tale, and the 
shadow of Fagin falls everywhere. The little 
lamp-lit rooms of Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie 
are to all appearance purposely kept subordinate, 
a mere foil to the foul darkness without. It was 
a strange and appropriate accident that Crulk- 
shank and not " Phiz " should have Illustrated 
this book. There was about Crulkshank's art a 



kind of cramped energy which is almost the defi- 
nition of the criminal mind. His drawings have 
a dark strength: yet he does not only draw mor- 
bidly, he draws meanly. In the doubled-up figure 
and frightful eyes of Fagin in the condemned cell 
there is not only a baseness of subject; there is a 
kind of baseness in the very technique of it. It is 
not drawn with the free lines of a free man ; it has 
the half-witted secrecies of a hunted thief. It does 
not look merely like a picture of Fagin; it looks 
like a picture by Fagin. Among these dark and 
detestable plates there is one which has with a 
kind of black directness, the dreadful poetry that 
does inhere In the story, stumbling as it often is. 
It represents Oliver asleep at an open window in 
the house of one of his humaner patrons. And 
outside the window, but as big and close as if 
they were In the room stand Fagin and the foul- 
faced Monk, staring at him with dark monstrous 
visages and great, white wicked eyes, in the style 
of the simple deviltry of the draughtsman. The 
very naivete of the horror is horrifying: the very 
woodenness of the two wicked men seems to make 
them worse than mere men who are wicked. But 
this picture of big devils at the window-sill does 
express, as has been suggested above, the thread 
of poetry in the whole thing; the sense, that is, of 



the thieves as a kind of army of devils compassing 
earth and sky, crying for Oliver's soul and besieg- 
ing the house in which he is barred for safety. In 
this matter there is, I think, a difference between 
the author and the illustrator. In Cruikshank 
there was surely something morbid; but, sensitive 
and sentimental as Dickens was, there was nothing 
morbid in him. He had, as Stevenson had, more 
of the mere boy's love of suffocating stories of 
blood and darkness; of skulls, of gibbets, of all the 
things, in a word, that are sombre without being 
sad. There is a ghastly joy in remembering our 
boyish reading about Sikes and his flight; espe- 
cially about the voice of that unbearable pedlar 
which went on in a monotonous and maddening 
sing-song, " will wash out grease-stains, mud- 
stains, blood-stains," until Sikes fled almost scream- 
ing. For this boyish mixture of appetite and 
repugnance there Is a good popular phrase, " sup- 
ping on horrors." Dickens supped on horrors as 
he supped on Christmas pudding. He supped on 
horrors because he was an optimist and could sup 
on anything. There was no saner or simpler 
schoolboy than Traddles, who covered all his 
books with skeletons. 

** Oliver Twist " had begun in Bentley's Mis- 
cellany, which Dickens edited in 1837. It was 



interrupted by a blow that for the moment broke 
the author's spirit and seemed to have broken his 
heart. His wife's sister, Mary Hogarth, died sud- 
denly. To Dickens his wife's family seems to 
have been like his own ; his affections were heavily 
committed to the sisters, and of this one he was 
peculiarly fond. All his life, through much conceit 
and sometimes something bordering on selfishness, 
we can feel the redeeming note of an almost tragic 
tenderness; he was a man who could really have 
died of love or sorrow. He took up the work of 
" Oliver Twist " again later in the year, and fin- 
ished it at the end of 1838. His work was inces- 
sant and almost bewildering. In 1838 he had 
already brought out the first number of " Nicholas 
NIckleby." But the great popularity went boom- 
ing on ; the whole world was roaring for books by 
Dickens, and more books by Dickens, and Dickens 
was labouring night and day like a factory. 
Among other things he edited the " Memoirs of 
Grimaldi." The incident is only worth mention- 
ing for the sake of one more example of the silly 
ease with which Dickens was drawn by criticism 
and the clever ease with which he managed, in 
these small squabbles, to defend himself. Some- 
body mildly suggested that, after all, Dickens had 
never known Grimaldi. Dickens was down on 



him like a thunderbolt, sardonically asking how 
close an intimacy Lord Braybrooke had with Mr. 
Samuel Pepys. 

" Nicholas NIckleby "' is the most typical per- 
haps of the tone of his earlier works. It is in 
form a very rambling, old-fashioned romance, the 
kind of romance In which the hero is only a con- 
venience for the frustration of the villain. Nicho- 
las is what Is called In theatricals a stick. But any 
stick is good enough to beat a Squeers with. That 
strong thwack, that simplified energy Is the whole 
object of such a story; and the whole of this tale 
Is full of a kind of highly picturesque platitude. 
The wicked aristocrats, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord 
Frederick Verlsopht and the rest are inadequate 
versions of the fashionable profligate. But this 
is not (as some suppose) because Dickens In his 
vulgarity could not comprehend the refinement of 
patrician vice. There is no idea more vulgar or 
more Ignorant than the notion that a gentleman 
is generally what is called refined. The error of 
the Hawk conception is that. If anything, he is 
too refined. Real aristocratic blackguards do not 
swagger and rant so well. A real fast baronet 
would not have defied Nicholas in the tavern with 
so much oratorical dignity. A real fast baronet 
would probably have been choked with apoplectic 



embarrassment and said nothing at all. But Dick- 
ens read into this aristocracy a grandiloquence and 
a natural poetry which, like all melodrama, Is 
really the precious jewel of the poor. 

But the book contains something which is much 
more Dickensian. It Is exquisitely characteristic 
of Dickens that the truly great achievement of the 
story Is the person who delays the story. Mrs. 
NIckleby with her beautiful mazes of memory does 
her best to prevent the story of Nicholas NIckleby 
from being told. And she does well. There is 
no particular necessity that we should know what 
happens to Madeline Bray. There Is a desperate 
and crying necessity that we should know that 
Mrs. NIckleby once had a foot-boy who had a 
wart on his nose and a driver who had a green 
shade over his left eye. If Mrs. NIckleby Is a 
fool, she Is one of those fools who are wiser than 
the world. She stands for a great truth which we 
must not forget; the truth that experience Is not 
in real life a saddening thing at all. The people 
who have had misfortunes are generally the people 
who love to talk about them. Experience Is really 
one of the gaieties of old age, one of Its dissipa- 
tions. Mere memory becomes a kind of debauch. 
Experience may be disheartening to those who are 
foolish enough to try to co-ordinate It and to draw 



deductions from It. But to those happy souls, 
like Mrs. Nickleby, to \Yhom relevancy Is nothing, 
the whole of their past life is like an inexhaustible 
fairyland. Just as we take a rambling walk be- 
cause we know that a whole district is beautiful, 
so they Indulge a rambling mind because they know 
that a whole existence is interesting. A boy does 
not plunge Into his future more romantically and 
at random, than they plunge into their past. 

Another gleam In the book is Mr, Mantalini. 
Of him, as of all the really great comic characters 
of Dickens, it is impossible to speak with any 
critical adequacy. Perfect absurdity Is a direct 
thing, like physical pain, or a strong smell. A 
joke Is a fact. However Indefensible it Is It 
cannot be attacked. However defensible It Is It 
cannot be defended. That Mr. Mantalini should 
say In praising the " outline '' of his wife, " The 
two Countesses had no outlines, and the Dow- 
ager's was a demd outline," this can only be called 
an unanswerable absurdity. You may tr\^ to an- 
alyse It, as Charles Lamb did the Indefensible joke 
about the hare; you may dwell for a moment on 
the dark distinctions between the negative disquali- 
fication of the Countesses and the positive dis- 
qualification of the Dowager, but you will not 
capture the violent beauty of It In any way. *' She 



will be a lovely widow; I shall be a body. Some 
handsome women will cry; she will laugh 
demnedly." This vision of demoniac heartless- 
ness has the same defiant finality. I mention the 
matter here, but it has to be remembered in con- 
nection with all the comic masterpieces of Dick- 
ens. Dickens has greatly suffered with the critics 
precisely through this stunning simplicity In his 
best work. The critic Is called upon to describe 
his sensations while enjoying MantalinI and 
MIcawber, and he can no more describe them than 
he can describe a blow in the face. Thus Dickens, 
in this self-conscious, analytical and descriptive 
age, loses both ways. He is doubly unfitted for 
the best modern criticism. His bad work is below 
that criticism. His good work is above it. 

But gigantic as were Dickens's labours, gigantic 
as were the exactions from him, his own plans 
were more gigantic still. He had the type of mind 
that wishes to do every kind of work at once; to 
do everybody's work as well as Its own. There 
floated before him a vision of a monstrous maga- 
zine, entirely written by himself. It Is true that 
when this scheme came to be discussed, he sug- 
gested that other pens might be occasionally em- 
ployed; but, reading between the lines. It Is suffi- 
ciently evident that he thought of the thing as a 



kind of vast multiplication of himself, with Dick- 
ens as editor, opening letters, Dickens as leader- 
writer writing leaders, Dickens as reporter report- 
ing meetings, Dickens as reviewer reviewing books, 
Dickens, for all I know, as office-boy, opening and 
shutting doors. This serial, of which he spoke to 
Messrs. Chapman and Hall, began and broke off 
and remains as a colossal fragment bound together 
under the title of " Master Humphrey's Clock." 
One characteristic thing he wished to have In the 
periodical. He suggested an Arabian Nights of 
London, In which Gog and Magog, the giants of 
the city, should give forth chronicles as enormous 
as themselves. He had a taste for these schemes 
or frameworks for many tales. He made and 
abandoned many; many he half-fulfilled. I 
strongly suspect that he meant Major Jackman, In 
" Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings " and " Mrs. Llrrl- 
per's Legacy," to start a series of studies of that 
lady's lodgers, a kind of history of No. 8i Nor- 
folk Street, Strand. " The Seven Poor Travel- 
lers " was planned for seven stories; we will not 
say seven poor stories. Dickens had meant, prob- 
ably, to write a tale for each article of " Some- 
body's Luggage " : he only got as far as the hat 
and the boots. This gigantesque scale of literary 
architecture, huge and yet curiously cosy. Is char- 



acteristic of his spirit, fond of size and yet fond 
of comfort. He liked to have story within story, 
like room within room of some labyrinthine but 
comfortable castle. In this spirit he wished 
'' Master Humphrey's Clock " to begin, and to 
be a big frame or bookcase for numberless novels. 
The clock started ; but the clock stopped. 

In the prologue by Master Humphrey reappears 
Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, and of that resur- 
rection many things have been said, chiefly expres- 
sions of a reasonable regret. Doubtless they do 
not add much to their author's reputation, but they 
add a great deal to their author's pleasure. It was 
Ingrained in him to wish to meet old friends. All 
his characters are, so to speak, designed to be old 
friends; In a sense every Dickens character is an 
old friend, even when he first appears. He comes 
to us mellow out of many implied interviews, and 
carries the firelight on his face. Dickens was sim- 
ply pleased to meet Pickwick again, and being 
pleased, he made the old man too comfortable to 
be amusing. 

But '' Master Humphrey's Clock " is now 
scarcely known except as the shell of one of the 
well-known novels. " The Old Curiosity Shop " 
was published In accordance with the original 
*' Clock " scheme. Perhaps the most typical thing 



about It Is the title. There seems no reason in par- 
ticular, at the first and most literal glance, why the 
story should be called after the Old Curiosity Shop. 
Only two of the characters have anything to do 
with such a shop, and they leave us for ever in the 
first few pages. It Is as If Thackeray had called 
the whole novel of " Vanity Fair " '* Miss Pinker- 
ton's Academy." It Is as If Scott had given the 
whole story of " The Antiquary " the title of 
*' The Hawes Inn." But when we feel the situa- 
tion with more fidelity we realize that this title 
Is something In the nature of a key to the whole 
Dickens romance. His tales always started from 
some splendid hint In the streets. And shops, per- 
haps the most poetical of all things, often set off 
his fancy galloping. Every shop, In fact, was to 
him the door of romance. Among all the huge 
serial schemes of which we have spoken, It is a 
matter of wonder that he never started an endless 
periodical called " The Street," and divided it 
Into shops. He could have written an exquisite 
romance called *' The Baker's Shop " ; another 
called " The Chemist's Shop " ; another called 
" The Oil Shop," to keep company with " The Old 
Curiosity Shop." Some Incomparable baker he 
invented and forgot. Some gorgeous chemist 
might have been. Some more than mortal oil- 



man is lost to us for ever. This Old Curiosity 
Shop he did happen to linger by: its tale he did 
happen to tell. 

Around " Little Nell," of course, a controversy 
raged and rages; some Implored Dickens not to 
kill her at the end of the story: some regret that 
he did not kill her at the beginning. To me the 
chief interest In this young person lies In the fact 
that she Is an example, and the most celebrated 
example of what must have been, I think, a per- 
sonal peculiarity, perhaps a personal experience of 
Dickens. There is, of course, no paradox at all 
In saying that If we find In a good book a wildly 
Impossible character It Is very probable indeed that 
It was copied from a real person. This is one of 
the commonplaces of good art criticism. For al- 
though people talk of the restraints of fact and the 
freedom of fiction, the case for most artistic pur- 
poses Is quite the other way. Nature Is as free as 
air : art Is forced to look probable. There may be 
a million things that do happen, and yet only one 
thing that convinces us as likely to happen. Out 
of a million possible things there may be only one 
appropriate thing. I fancy, therefore, that many 
stiff, unconvincing characters are copied from the 
wild freak-show of real life. And in many parts 
of Dickens's work there is evidence of some pecu- 



liar affection on his part for a strange sort of little 
girl; a little girl with a premature sense of re- 
sponsibility and duty; a sort of saintly precocity. 
Did he know some little girl of this kind? Did she 
die, perhaps, and remain in his memory In colours 
too ethereal and pale? In any case there are a 
great number of them In his works. Little Dorrit 
was one of them, and Florence Dombey with her 
brother, and even Agnes In Infancy; and, of course, 
Little Nell. And, In any case, one thing Is evi- 
dent; whatever charm these children may have 
they have not the charm of childhood. They are 
not little children : they are " little mothers." The 
beauty and divinity In a child lie in his not being 
worried, not being conscientious, not being like 
Little Nell. Little Nell has never any of the 
sacred bewilderment of a baby. She never wears 
that face, beautiful but almost half-witted, with 
which a real child half understands that there Is 
evil in the universe. 

As usual, however, little as the story has to do 
with the title, the splendid and satisfying pages 
have even less to do with the story. Dick Swlvel- 
ler is perhaps the noblest of all the noble creations 
of Dickens. He has all the overwhelming absur- 
dity of Mantalini, with the addition of being 
human and credible, for he knows he Is absurd. 



His high-falutin Is not done because he seriously 
thinks it right and proper, like that of Mr. Snod- 
grass, nor is it done because he thinks it will serve 
his turn, like that of Mr. Pecksniff, for both these 
beliefs are improbable ; it is done because he really 
loves high-falutin, because he has a lonely literary 
pleasure in exaggerative language. Great draughts 
of words are to him like great draughts of wine 
— pungent and yet refreshing, light and yet leav- 
ing him in a glow. In unerring instinct for the 
perfect folly of a phrase he has no equal, even 
among the giants of Dickens. *' I am sure," says 
Miss Wackles, when she had been flirting with 
Cheggs, the market-gardener, and reduced Mr. 
Swiveller to Byronic renunciation, " I am sure I'm 
very sorry if — " " Sorry," said Mr. Swiveller, 
"sorry In the possession of a Cheggs!" The 
abyss of bitterness Is unfathomable. Scarcely less 
precious Is the pose of Mr. Swiveller when he 
Imitates the stage brigand. After crying, " Some 
wine here ! Ho ! " he hands the flagon to himself 
with profound humility, and receives it haughtily. 
Perhaps the very best scene In the book Is that 
between Mr. Swiveller and the single gentleman 
with whom he endeavours to remonstrate for hav- 
ing remained In bed all day: ''We cannot have 
single gentlemen coming Into the place and sleep- 


ing like double gentlemen without paying extra. 
. An equal amount of slumber was never 
got out of one bed, and If you want to sleep like 
that you must pay for a double-bedded room." 
His relations with the Marchioness are at once 
purely romantic and purely genuine ; there is noth- 
ing even of Dickens's legitimate exaggerations 
about them. A shabby, larky, good-natured clerk 
would, as a matter of fact, spend hours in the 
society of a little servant girl if he found her about 
the house. It would arise partly from a dim kind- 
liness, and partly from that mysterious instinct 
which is sometimes called, mistakenly, a love 
of low company — that mysterious instinct which 
makes so many men of pleasure find something 
soothing in the society of uneducated people, par- 
ticularly uneducated women. It is the instinct 
which accounts for the otherwise unaccountable 
popularity of barmaids. 

And still the pot of that huge popularity boiled. 
In 1 84 1 another novel was demanded, and " Bar- 
naby Rudge " supplied. It is chiefly of Interest as 
an embodiment of that other element in Dickens, 
the picturesque or even the pictorial. Barnaby 
Rudge, the idiot with his rags and his feathers and 
his raven, the bestial hangman, the blind mob — 
all make a picture, though they hardly make a 



novel. One touch there is In It of the richer and 
more humorous Dickens, the boy-conspirator, Mr. 
Sim Tappertlt. But he might have been treated 
with more sympathy — with as much sympathy, for 
Instance, as Mr. Dick Swiveller; for he Is only 
the romantic guttersnipe, the bright boy at the 
particular age when It Is most fascinating to found 
a secret society and most difficult to keep a secret. 
And if ever there was a romantic guttersnipe on 
earth it was Charles Dickens. " Barnaby Rudge " 
is no more an historical novel than Sim's secret 
league was a political movement; but they are both 
beautiful creations. When all is said, however, the 
main reason for mentioning the work here is that 
It is the next bubble in the pot, the next thing that 
burst out of that whirling, seething head. The 
tide of it rose and smoked and sang till it boiled 
over the pot of Britain and poured over all Amer- 
ica. In the January of 1842 he set out for the 
United States. 




The essential of Dickens's character was the con- 
junction of common sense with uncommon sensi- 
bility. The two things are not, indeed, In such 
an antithesis as is commonly Imagined. Great 
English literary authorities, such as Jane Austen 
and Mr. Chamberlain, have put the word " sense " 
and the word " sensibility " In a kind of opposi- 
tion to each other. But not only are they not 
opposite words: they are actually the same word. 
They both mean receptlveness or approachablllty 
by the facts outside us. To have a sense of colour 
IS the same as to have a sensibility to colour. A 
person who realizes that beef-steaks are appetiz- 
ing shows his sensibility. A person who realizes 
that moonrlse Is romantic shows his sense. But It 
Is not difficult to see the meaning and need of the 
popular distinction between sensibility and sense, 
particularly In the form called common sense. 
Common sense Is a sensibility duly distributed in 
all normal directions ; sensibility has come to mean 
a specialized sensibility In one. This Is unfortu- 



nate, for It Is not the sensibility that Is bad, but 
the specializing; that Is, the lack of sensibility to 
everything else. A young lady who stays out all 
night to look at the stars should not be blamed 
for her sensibility to starlight, but for her insen- 
sibility to other people. A poet who recites his 
own verses from ten to five with the tears rolling 
down his face should decidedly be rebuked for his 
lack of sensibility — his lack of sensibility to those 
grand rhythms of the social harmony, crudely 
called manners. For all politeness Is a long poem, 
since It Is full of recurrences. This balance of all 
the sensibilities we call sense; and It Is In this 
capacity that It becomes of great Importance as an 
attribute of the character of Dickens. 

Dickens, I repeat, had common sense and un- 
common sensibility. That is to say, the proportion 
of Interests In him was about the same as that of 
an ordinary man, but he felt all of them more 
excitedly. This Is a distinction not easy for us to 
keep In mind, because we hear to-day chiefly of 
two types, the dull man who likes ordinary things 
mildly, and the extraordinary man who likes ex- 
traordinary things wildly. But Dickens liked 
quite ordinary things ; he merely made an extraor- 
dinary fuss about them. His excitement was some- 
times like an epileptic fit; but It must not be con- 



fused with the fury of the man of one Idea or one 
line of Ideas. He had the excess of the eccentric, 
but not the defects, the narrowness. Even when 
he raved like a maniac he did not rave like a 
monomaniac. He had no particular spot of sen- 
sibility or spot of insensibility: he was merely a 
normal man minus a normal self-command. He 
had no special point of mental pain or repugnance, 
like Ruskln's horror of steam and Iron, or Mr. 
Bernard Shaw's permanent Irritation against ro- 
mantic love. He was annoyed at the ordinary 
annoyances: only he was more annoyed than was 
necessary. He did not desire strange delights, 
blue wine or black women with Baudelaire, or 
cruel sights east of Suez with Mr. Kipling. He 
wanted what a healthy man wants, only he was 
ill with wanting It. To understand him, In a word, 
we must keep well In mind the medical distinction 
between delicacy and disease. Perhaps we shall 
comprehend It and him more clearly If we think 
of a woman rather than a man. There was much 
that was feminine about Dickens, and nothing 
more so than this abnormal normality. A woman 
Is often, In comparison with a man, at once more 
sensitive and more sane. 

This distinction must be especially remembered 
in all his quarrels. And It must be most especially 



remembered In what may be called his great quar- 
rel with America, which we have now to approach. 
The whole matter Is so typical of Dickens's atti- 
tude to everything and anything, and especially of 
Dickens's attitude to anything political, that I may 
ask permission to approach the matter by another, 
a somewhat long and curving avenue. 

Common sense Is a fairy thread, thin and faint, 
and as easily lost as gossamer. Dickens (In large 
matters) never lost It. Take, as an example, his 
political tone or drift throughout his life. His 
views, of course, may have been right or wrong; 
the reforms he supported may have been successful 
or otherwise: that Is not a matter for this book. 
But If we compare him with the other men that 
wanted the same things (or the other men that 
wanted the other things) we feel a startling ab- 
sence of cant, a startling sense of humanity as It 
IS, and of the eternal weakness. He was a fierce 
democrat, but In his best vein he laughed at the 
cocksure Radical of common life, the red-faced 
man who said, " Prove It ! " when anybody said 
anything. He fought for the right to elect; but 
he would not whitewash elections. He believed In 
parliamentary government; but he did not, like 
our contemporary newspapers, pretend that par- 
liament Is something much more heroic and im- 



posing than it is. He fought for the rights of the 
grossly oppressed Nonconformists ; but he spat out 
of his mouth the unction of that too easy serious- 
ness with which they oiled everything, and held up 
to them like a horrible mirror the foul fat face of 
Chadband. He saw that Mr. Podsnap thought 
too little of places outside England. But he saw 
that Mrs. Jellaby thought too much of them. In 
the last book he wrote he gives us, in Mr. Honey- 
thunder, a hateful and wholesome picture of all 
the Liberal catchwords pouring out of one illib- 
eral man. But perhaps the best evidence of this 
steadiness and sanity is the fact that, dogmatic 
as he was, he never tied himself to any passing 
dogma : he never got Into any cul de sac of civic 
or economic fanaticism: he went down the broad 
road of the Revolution. He never admitted that 
economically, we must make hells of workhouses, 
any more than Rousseau would have admitted It. 
He never said the State had no right to teach 
children or save their bones, any more than Dan- 
ton would have said It. He was a fierce Radical; 
but he was never a Manchester Radical. He used 
the test of Utility, but he was never a Utilitarian. 
While economists were writing soft words he 
wrote " Hard Times," which Macaulay called 
" sullen Socialism," because It was not complacent 



Whigglsm. But Dickens was never a Socialist any 
more than he was an Individualist; and, whatever 
else he was, he certainly was not sullen. He was 
not even a politician of any kind. He was 
simply a man of very clear, airy judgment on 
things that did not Inflame his private temper, and 
he perceived that any theory that tried to run the 
living State entirely on one force and motive was 
probably nonsense. Whenever the Liberal philos- 
ophy had embedded In It something hard and 
heavy and lifeless, by an Instinct he dropped It out. 
He was too romantic, perhaps, but he would have 
to do only with real things. He may have cared 
too much about Liberty. But he cared nothing 
about " Lalssez falre.'* 

Now, among many Interests of his contact with 
America this Interest emerges as Infinitely the 
largest and most striking, that It gave a final ex- 
ample of this queer, unexpected coolness and can- 
dour of his, this abrupt and sensational rationality. 
Apart altogether from any question of the accu- 
racy of his picture of America, the American Indig- 
nation was particularly natural and Inevitable. 
For the large circumstances of the age must be 
taken into account. At the end of the previous 
epoch the whole of our Christian civilization had 
been startled from its sleep by trumpets to take 



sides In a bewildering Armageddon, often with 
eyes still misty. Germany and Austria found 
themselves on the side, of the old order, France 
and America on the side of the new. England, as 
at the Reformation, took up eventually a dark 
middle position, maddeningly difficult to define. 
She created a democracy, but she kept an aristoc- 
racy: she reformed the House of Commons, but 
left the magistracy (as It is still) a mere league 
of gentlemen against the world. But underneath 
all this doubt and compromise there was In Eng- 
land a great and perhaps growing mass of dog- 
matic democracy; certainly thousands, probably 
millions expected a Republic In fifty years. And 
for these the first instinct was obvious. The first 
Instinct was to look across the Atlantic to where 
lay a part of ourselves already Republican, the van 
of the advancing English on the road to liberty. 
Nearly all the great Liberals of the nineteenth 
century enormously idealized America. On the 
other hand to the Americans, fresh from their 
first epic of arms, the defeated mother country, 
with its coronets and county magistrates, was. 
only a broken feudal keep. 

So much Is self-evident. But nearly halfway 
through the nineteenth century there came out of 
England the voice of a violent satirist. In Its 



political quality it seemed like the half-choked cry 
of the frustrated republic. It had no patience with 
the pretence that England was already free, that 
we had gained all that was valuable from the Revo- 
lution. It poured a cataract of contempt on the 
so-called working compromises of England, on 
the oligarchic cabinets, on the two artificial parties, 
on the government offices, on the J.P.'s, on the 
vestries, on the voluntary charities. This satirist 
was Dickens, and It must be remembered that he 
was not only fierce, but uproariously readable. He 
really damaged the things he struck at, a very 
rare thing. He stepped up to the grave official 
of the vestry, really trusted by the rulers, really 
feared like a god by the poor, and he tied round 
his neck a name that choked him; never again 
now can he be anything but Bumble. He con- 
fronted the fine old English gentleman who gives 
his patriotic services for nothing as a local magis- 
trate, and he nailed him up as Nupkins, an owl In 
open day. For to this satire there Is literally no 
answer; It cannot be denied that a man like Nup- 
kins can be and Is a magistrate, so long as we 
adopt the amazing method of letting the rich man 
of a district actually be the judge in it. We can 
only avoid the vision of the fact by shutting our 
eyes, and Imagining the nicest rich man we can 



think of; and that, of course, Is what we do. But 
Dickens, in this matter, was merely realistic; he 
merely asked us to look on Nupkins, on the wild, 
strange thing that we had made. Thus Dickens 
seemed to see England not at all as the country 
where freedom slowly broadened down from pre- 
cedent to precedent, but as a rubbish heap of seven- 
teenth century bad habits abandoned by every- 
body else. That Is, he looked at England almost 
with the eyes of an American democrat. 

And so, when the voice, swelling in volume, 
reached America and the Americans, the Ameri- 
cans said, " Here Is a man who will hurry the old 
country along, and tip her kings and beadles into 
the sea. Let him come here, and we will show him 
a race of free men such as he dreams of, alive upon 
the ancient earth. Let him come here and tell 
the English of the divine democracy towards which 
he drives them. There he has a monarchy and an 
oligarchy to make game of. Here Is a republic 
for him to praise." It seemed. Indeed, a very 
natural sequel, that having denounced undemo- 
cratic England as the wilderness, he should an- 
nounce democratic America as the promised land. 
Any ordinary person would have prophesied that 
as he had pushed his rage at the old order almost 
to the edge of rant, he would push his encomium 



of the new order almost to the edge of cant. Amid 
a roar of republican idealism, compliments, hope, 
and anticipatory gratitude, the great democrat en- 
tered the great democracy. He looked about him ; 
he saw a complete America, unquestionably pro- 
gressive, unquestionably self-governing. Then, 
with a more than American coolness, and a more 
than American impudence, he sat down and wrote 
" Martin Chuzzlewit." That tricky and perverse 
sanity of his had mutinied again. Common sense 
Is a wild thing, savage, and beyond rules; and it 
had turned on them and rent them. 

The main course of action was as follows; and 
it is right to record it before we speak of the jus- 
tice of It. When I speak of his sitting down and 
writing " Martin Chuzzlewit," I use, of course, an 
elliptical expression. He wrote the notes of the 
American part of " Martin Chuzzlewit " while 
he was still In America ; but It was a later decision 
presumably that such Impressions should go Into 
a book, and It was little better than an afterthought 
that they should go Into " Martin Chuzzlewit." 
Dickens had an uncommonly bad habit (artistic- 
ally speaking) of altering a story In the middle as 
he did In the case of " Our Mutual Friend." And 
It Is on record that he only sent young Martin 
to America because he did not know what else 



to do with him, and because (to say truth) the 
sales were falling off. But the first action, which 
Americans regarded as an equally hostile one, was 
the publication of " American Notes," the history 
of which should first be given. His notion of visit- 
ing America had come to him as a very vague 
notion, even before the appearance of " The Old 
Curiosity Shop." But it had grown in him through 
the whole ensuing period in the plaguing and per- 
sistent way that ideas did grow in him and live 
with him. He contended against the idea in a 
certain manner. He had much to induce him to 
contend against it. Dickens was by this time not 
only a husband, but a father, the father of several 
children, and their existence made a difficulty in 
itself. His wife, he said, cried whenever the pro- 
ject was mentioned. But it was a point in him 
that he could never, with any satisfaction, part 
with a project. He had that restless optimism, 
that kind of nervous optimism, which would al- 
ways tend to say " Yes " ; which is stricken with an 
Immortal repentance, if ever It says " No." The 
Idea of seeing America might be doubtful, but the 
Idea of not seeing America was dreadful. " To 
miss this opportunity would be a sad thing," he 
says. ". . . God willing, I think It must be man- 
aged somehow I " It was managed somehow, 



First of all he wanted to take his children as well 
as his wife. Final obstacles to this fell upon him, 
but they did not frustrate him. A serious illness 
fell on him; but that did not frustrate him. He 
sailed for America in 1842. 

He landed in America, and he liked it. As 
John Forster very truly says, it is due to him, as 
well as to the great country that welcomed him, 
that his first good impression should be recorded, 
and that it should be " considered independently 
of any modification it afterwards underwent." 
But the modification it afterwards underwent was, 
as I have said above, simply a sudden kicking 
against cant, that is, against repetition. He was 
quite ready to believe that all Americans were 
free men. He would have believed It If they had 
not all told him so. He was quite prepared to be 
pleased with America. He would have been pleased 
with It If It had not been so much pleased with 
Itself. The "modification" his view underwent did 
not arise from any " modification " of America as 
he first saw It. His admiration did not change be- 
cause America changed. It changed because 
America did not change. The Yankees enraged 
him at last, not by saying different things, but by 
saying the same things. They were a republic; 
they were a new and vigorous nation; it seemed 



natural that they should say so to a famous for- 
eigner first stepping on to their shore. But it 
seemed maddening that they should say so to each 
other in every car and drinking saloon from morn- 
ing till night. It was not that the Americans in 
any way ceased from praising him. It was rather 
that they went on praising him. It was not merely 
that their praises of him sounded beautiful when 
he first heard them. Their praises of themselves 
sounded beautiful when he first heard them. That 
democracy was grand, and that Charles Dickens 
was a remarkable person, were two truths that 
he certainly never doubted to his dying day. But, 
as I say, it was a soulless repetition that stung his 
sense of humour out of sleep; it woke like a wild 
beast for hunting, the lion of his laughter. He 
had heard the truth once too often. He had 
heard the truth for the nine hundred and ninety- 
ninth time, and he suddenly saw that it was false- 

It IS true that a particular circumstance sharp- 
ened and defined his disappointment. He felt 
very hotly, as he felt everything, whether selfish 
or unselfish, the injustice of the American piracies 
of English literature, resulting from the American 
copyright laws. He did not go to America with 
any idea of discussing this; when, some time after- 



wards, somebody said that he did, he violently 
rejected the view as only describable " in one of 
the shortest words in the English language." But 
his entry into America was almost triumphal; the 
rostrum or pulpit was ready for him; he felt 
strong enough to say anything. He had been most 
warmly entertained by many American men of 
letters, especially by Washington Irving, and in 
his consequent glow of confidence he stepped up 
to the dangerous question of American copyright. 
He made many speeches attacking the American 
law and theory of the matter as unjust to English 
writers and to American readers. The effect ap- 
pears to have astounded him. " I believe there 
is no country," he writes, " on the face of the earth 
where there is less freedom of opinion on any 
subject in reference to which there is a broad differ- 
ence of opinion than in this. There ! I write the 
words with reluctance, disappointment, and sor- 
row; but I believe it from the bottom of my soul. 
. . . The notion that I, a man alone by myself 
in America, should venture to suggest to the Amer- 
icans that there was one point on which they were 
neither just to their own countrymen nor to us, 
actually struck the boldest dumb! Washington 
Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, 
Washington Allston — every man v/ho writes in 



this country Is devoted to the question, and not one 
of them dares to raise his voice and complain of 
the atrocious state of the law. . . . The wonder 
Is that a breathing man can be found with temerity 
enough to suggest to the Americans the possibility 
of their having done wrong. I wish you could 
have seen the faces that I saw down both sides 
of the table at Hartford when I began to talk 
about Scott. I wish you could have heard how 
I gave It out. My blood so boiled when I thought 
of the monstrous Injustice that I felt as If I were 
twelve feet high when I thrust It down their 

That Is almost a portrait of Dickens. We can 
almost see the erect little figure, Its face and hair 
like a flame. 

For such reasons, among others, Dickens was 
angry with America. But If America was angry 
with Dickens, there were also reasons for It. I 
do not think that the rage against his copyright 
speeches was, as he supposed, merely national inso- 
lence and self-satisfaction. America Is a mystery 
to any good Englishman; but I think Dickens 
managed somehow to touch it on a queer nerve. 
There Is one thing, at any rate, that must strike 
all Englishmen who have the good fortune to have 
American friends; that is, that while there is no 



materialism so crude or so material as American 
materialism, there is also no idealism so crude or 
so ideal as American idealism. America will al- 
ways affect an Englishman as being soft in the 
wrong place and hard in the wrong place; coarse 
exactly where all civilized men are delicate, deli- 
cate exactly where all grown-up men are coarse. 
Some beautiful ideal runs through this people, but 
it runs aslant. The only existing picture in which 
the thing I mean has been embodied is in Steven- 
son's " Wrecker," in the blundering delicacy of 
Jim Pinkerton. America has a new delicacy, a 
coarse, rank refinement. But there is another way 
of embodying the idea, and that Is to say this — 
that nothing is more likely than that the Americans 
thought It very shocking In Dickens, the divine 
author, to talk about being done out of money. 
Nothing would be more American than to expect 
a genius to be too high-toned for trade. It Is 
certain that they deplored his selfishness In the 
matter. It Is probable that they deplored his Indeli- 
cacy. A beautiful young dreamer, with flowing 
brown hair, ought not to be even conscious of his 
copyrights. For It Is quite unjust to say that the 
Americans worship the dollar. They really do 
worship Intellect — another of the passing super- 
stitions of our time. 



If America had then this PInkertonian pro- 
priety, this new, raw sensibility, Dickens was the 
man to rasp It. He was its precise opposite in 
every way. The decencies he did respect were old- 
fashioned and fundamental. On top of these he 
had that lounging liberty and comfort which can 
only be had on the basis of very old conventions, 
like the carelessness of gentlemen and the delibera- 
tion of rustics. He had no fancy for being strung 
up to that taut and quivering ideality demanded 
by American patriots and pubHc speakers. And 
there was something else also, connected especially 
with the question of copyright and his own pecu- 
niary claims. Dickens was not In the least desirous 
of being thought too *' high-souled " to want his 
wages, nor was he In the least ashamed of asking 
for them. Deep In him (whether the modern 
reader likes the quality or no) was a sense very 
strong In the old Radicals — very strong especially 
In the old English Radicals — a sense of personal 
rights, one's own rights Included, as something not 
merely useful but sacred. He did not think a claim 
any less just and solemn because It happened to be 
selfish; he did not divide claims Into selfish and 
unselfish, but Into right and wrong. It Is signifi- 
cant that when he asked for his money, he never 
asked for it with that shamefaced cynicism, that 



sort of embarrassed brutality, with which the mod- 
ern man of the world mutters something about 
business being business or looking after number 
one. He asked for his money In a valiant and 
ringing voice, like a man asking for his honour. 
While his American critics were moaning and 
sneering at his Interested motives as a disqualifi- 
cation, he brandished his interested motives like 
a banner. " It Is nothing to them," he cries In 
astonishment, " that, of all men living, I am the 
greatest loser by It " (the Copyright Law). " It 
is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be 
heard." The thing they set up as a barrier he 
actually presents as a passport. They think that 
he, of all men, ought not to speak because he Is 
interested. He thinks that he, of all men, ought to 
speak because he Is wronged. 

But this particular disappointment with America 
In the matter of the tyranny of Its public opinion 
was not merely the expression of the fact that 
Dickens was a typical Englishman; that is, a man 
with a very sharp Insistence upon individual free- 
dom. It also worked back ultimately to that 
larger and vaguer disgust of which I have spoken 
— the disgust at the perpetual posturing of the 
people before a mirror. The tyranny was irritat- 
ing, not so much because of the suffering it inflicted 



on the minority, but because of the awful glimpses 
that it gave of the huge and imbecile happiness of 
the majority. The very vastness of the vain race 
enraged him, its immensity, its unity, its peace. 
He was annoyed more with its contentment than 
with any of its discontents. The thought of that 
unthinkable mass of millions, every one of them 
saying that Washington was the greatest man on 
earth, and that the Queen lived in the Tower of 
London, rode his riotous fancy like a nightmare. 
But to the end he retained the outlines of his 
original republican ideal and lamented over Amer- 
ica not as being too Liberal, but as not being Lib- 
eral enough. Among others, he used these some- 
what remarkable words: " I tremble for a Radical 
coming here, unless he is a Radical on principle, 
by reason and reflection, and from the sense of 
right. I fear that if he were anything else he 
would return home a Tory. ... I say no more 
on that head for two months from this time, save 
that I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at 
liberty will be dealt by this country. In the failure 
of Its example on the earth." 

We are still waiting to see If that prediction has 
been fulfilled; but nobody can say that It has been 

He went west on the great canals ; he went south 



and touched the region of slavery; he saw America 
superficially indeed, but as a whole. And the great 
mass of his experience was certainly pleasant, 
though he vibrated with anticipatory passion 
against slave-holders, though he swore he would 
accept no public tribute in the slave country (a 
resolve which he broke under the pressure of the 
politeness of the south), yet his actual collisions 
with slavery and its upholders were few and brief. 
In these he bore himself with his accustomed vivac- 
ity and fire, but it would be a great mistake to con- 
vey the impression that his mental reaction against 
America was chiefly, or even largely, due to his 
horror at the negro problem. Over and above the 
cant of which we have spoken, the weary rush of 
words, the chief complaint he made was a com- 
plaint against bad manners; and on a large view 
his anti-Americanism would seem to be more 
founded on spitting than on slavery. When, how- 
ever, it did happen that the primary morahty of 
man-owning came up for discussion, Dickens dis- 
played an honourable impatience. One man, full 
of anti-abolitionist ardour, buttonholed him and 
bombarded him with the well-known argument in 
defence of slavery, that it was not to the financial 
interest of a slave-owner to damage or weaken his 
own slaves. Dickens, in telling the story of this 



interview, writes as follows: " I told him quietly 
that it was not a man's Interest to get drunk, or 
to steal, or to game, or to indulge In any other 
vice; but he did Indulge In It for all that. That 
cruelty and the abuse of Irresponsible power were 
two of the bad passions of human nature, with the 
gratification of which considerations of Interest or 
of ruin had nothing whatever to do. . . ." It 
is hardly possible to doubt that Dickens, In telling 
the man this, told him something sane and logical 
and unanswerable. But it Is perhaps permissible 
to doubt whether he told It to him quietly. 

He returned home in the spring of 1842, and 
in the later part of the year his " American Notes " 
appeared, and the cry against him that had begun 
over copyright swelled Into a roar In his rear. Yet 
when we read the " Notes " we can find little 
offence In them, and, to say truth, less Interest than 
usual. They are no true picture of America, or 
even of his vision of America, and this for two 
reasons. First, that he deliberately excluded from 
them all mention of that copyright question which 
had really given him his glimpse of how tyrannicrJ 
a democracy can be. Second, that here he chiefly 
criticizes America for faults which are not, after 
all, especially American. For example, he Is Indig- 
nant with the Inadequate character of the prisons, 



and compares them unfavourably with those In 
England, controlled by Lieutenant Tracey, and 
by Chesterton at Coldbath Fields, two reformers 
of prison discipline for whom he had a high re- 
gard. But It was a mere accident that American 
gaols were inferior to English. There was and is 
nothing In the American spirit to prevent their 
effecting all the reforms of Tracey and Chester- 
ton, nothing to prevent their doing anything that 
money and energy and organization can do. 
America might have (for all I know, does have) a 
prison system cleaner and more humane and more 
efficient than any other In the world. And the 
evil genius of America might still remain — every- 
thing might remain that makes Pogram or Chol- 
lop irritating or absurd. And against the evil 
genius of America Dickens was now to strike a 
second and a very different blow. 

In January, 1843, appeared the first number of 
the novel called " Martin Chuzzlev/it." The 
earlier part of the book and the end, which have 
no connection with America or the American prob- 
lem. In any case require a passing word. But ex- 
cept for the two gigantic grotesques on each side 
of the gateway of the tale, Pecksniff and Mrs. 
Gamp, " Martin Chuzzlewit " will be chiefly ad- 
mired for Its American excursion. It Is a good 



satire embedded in an Indifferent novel. Mrs. 
Gamp Is, Indeed, a sumptuous study, laid on In 
those rich, oily, almost greasy colours that go to 
make the English comic characters, that make the 
very diction of Falstaff fat, and quaking with jolly 
degradation. Pecksniff also Is almost perfect, and 
much too good to be true. The only other thing 
to be noticed about him Is that here, as almost 
everywhere else In the novels, the best figures are 
at their best when they have least to do. Dickens's 
characters are perfect as long as he can keep them 
out of his stories. Bumble Is divine until a dark 
and practical secret is entrusted to him — as if any- 
body but a lunatic would entrust a secret to Bum- 
ble. MIcawber is noble when he Is doing nothing; 
but he is quite unconvincing when he is spying on 
Uriah Heep, for obviously neither MIcawber nor 
any one else would employ MIcawber as a private 
detective. Similarly, while Pecksniff is the best 
thing in the story, the story is the worst thing in 
Pecksniff. His plot against old Martin can only 
be described by saying that it is as silly as old 
Martin's plot against him. His fall at the end 
is one of the rare falls of Dickens. Surely It was 
not necessary to take Pecksniff so seriously. Peck- 
sniff Is a merely laughable character ; he is so laugh- 
able that he Is lovable. Why take such trouble 



to unmask a man whose mask you have made 
transparent? Why collect all the characters to 
witness the exposure of a man In whom none of the 
characters believe? Why toll and triumph to 
have the laugh of a man who was only made to be 
laughed at? 

But It Is the American part of " Martin Chuz- 
zlewlt " which Is our concern, and which Is memo- 
rable. It has the air of a great satire; but If It 
Is only a great slander, It Is still great. His serious 
book on America was merely a squib, perhaps a 
damp squib. In any case, we all know that Amer- 
ica will survive such serious books. But his fan- 
tastic book may survive America. It may survive 
America as " The Knights " has survived Athens. 
" Martin Chuzzlewit " has this quality of great 
satire that the critic forgets to ask whether the 
portrait Is true to the original, because the por- 
trait Is so much more Important than the original. 
Who cares whether Aristophanes correctly de- 
scribes Kleon, who Is dead, when he so perfectly 
describes the demagogue, who cannot die? Just 
as little, It may be, will some future age care 
whether the ancient civilization of the west, the 
lost cities of New York and St. Louis, were fairly 
depicted in the colossal monument of Elijah 
Pogram. For there is much more in the American 



episodes than their Intoxicating absurdity; there is 
more than humour in the young man who made 
the speech about the British Lion, and said, " I 
taunt that Hon. Alone I dare him;" or in the 
other man who told Martin that when he said that 
Queen Victoria did not live In the Tower of Lon- 
don he " fell into an error not uncommon among 
his countrymen." He has his finger on the nerve 
of an evil which was not only in his enemies, but 
in himself. The great democrat has hold of one 
of the dangers of democracy. The great optimist 
confronts a horrible nightmare of optimism. 
Above all, the genuine Englishman attacks a sin 
that Is not merely American, but English also. 
The eternal, complacent iteration of patriotic half- 
truths; the perpetual buttering of one's self all 
over with the same stale butter; above all, the big 
defiances of small enemies, or the very urgent chal- 
lenges to very distant enemies; the cowardice so 
habitual and unconscious that It wears the plumes 
of courage — all this Is an English temptation as 
well as an American one. *' Martin Chuzzlewit " 
may be a caricature of America. America may be 
a caricature of England. But In the gravest col- 
lege, In the quietest country house of England, 
there Is the seed of the same essential madness that 
fills Dickens's book, like an asylum, with brawling 



Chollops and raving Jefferson Bricks. That es- 
sential madness is the idea that the good patriot 
is the man who feels at ease about his country. 
This notion of patriotism was unknown in the lit- 
tle pagan republics where our European patriotism 
began. It was unknown in the Middle Ages. In 
the eighteenth century, in the making of modern 
politics, a " patriot " meant a discontented man. 
It was opposed to the word '' courtier," which 
meant an upholder of the status quo. In all other 
modern countries, especially in countries - like 
France and Ireland, where real difficulties have 
been faced, the word " patriot " means something 
like a political pessimist. This view and these 
countries have exaggerations and dangers of their 
own ; but the exaggeration and danger of England 
is the same as the exaggeration and danger of 
The Watertoast Gazette. The thing which is 
rather foolishly called the Anglo-Saxon civiliza- 
tion is at present soaked through with a weak pride. 
It uses great masses of men not to procure discus- 
sion but to procure the pleasure of unanimity; it 
uses masses like bolsters. It uses its organs of 
public opinion not to warn the public, but to soothe 
it. It really succeeds not only in ignoring the rest 
of the world, but actually in forgetting it. And 
when a civilization really forgets the rest of the 



world — lets It fall as something obviously dim 
and barbaric — then there Is only one adjective for 
the ultimate fate of that civilization, and that 
adjective Is " Chinese." 

Martin Chuzzlev/It's America is a mad-house: 
but It Is a mad-house we are all on the road to. 
For completeness and even comfort are almost the 
definitions of Insanity. The lunatic Is the man who 
lives In a small world but thinks It Is a large one : 
he Is the man who lives In a tenth of the truth, 
and thinks It Is the whole. The madman cannot 
conceive any cosmos outside a certain tale or con- 
spiracy or vision. Hence the more clearly we see 
the world divided Into Saxons and non-Saxons, Into 
our splendid selves and the rest, the more certain 
we may be that we are slowly and quietly going 
mad. The more plain and satisfying our state 
appears, the more we may know that we are living 
In an unreal world. For the real world Is not 
satisfying. The more clear become the colours 
and facts of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the more 
surely we may know we are In a dream. For the 
real world Is not clear or plain. The real world 
Is full of bracing bewilderments and brutal sur- 
prises. Comfort Is the blessing and the curse of 
the English, and of Americans of the Pogram type 
also. With them It Is a loud comfort, a wild com- 



fort, a screaming and capering comfort; but com- 
fort at bottom still. For there Is but an inch of 
difference between the cushioned chamber and the 
padded cell. 




In the July of 1844 Dickens went on an Italian 
tour, which he afterwards summarized in the book 
called " Pictures from Italy." They are, of 
course, very vivacious, but there Is no great need 
to Insist on them, considered as Italian sketches; 
there is no need whatever to worry about them as 
a phase of the mind of Dickens when he travelled 
out of England. He never travelled out of Eng- 
land. There Is no trace in all these amusing pages 
that he really felt the great foreign things which 
lie In wait for us in the south of Europe, the Latin 
civilization, the Catholic Church, the art of the 
centre, the endless end of Rome. His travels are 
not travels in Italy, but travels In DIckensland. 
He sees amusing things; he describes them amus- 
ingly. But he would have seen things just as good 
in a street In Pimlico, and described them just as 
well. Few things were racier even In his raciest 
novel, than his description of the marionette play 
of the death of Napoleon. Nothing could be more 
perfect than the figure of the doctor, which had 



something wrong with Its wires, and hence " hov- 
ered about the couch and delivered medical opin- 
ions In the air.'* Nothing could be better as a 
catching of the spirit of all popular drama than 
the colossal depravity of the wooden Image of 
" Sir Udson Low." But there Is nothing Italian 
about It. Dickens would have made just as good 
fun, indeed just the same fun, of a Punch and 
Judy show performing In Long Acre or Lincoln's 
Inn Fields. 

Dickens uttered just and sincere satire on Plor- 
nlsh and Podsnap; but Dickens was as English as 
any Podsnap or any Plornlsh. He had a hearty 
humanitarlanism, and a hearty sense of justice to 
all nations, so far as he understood It. But that 
very kind of humanitarlanism, that very kind of 
justice, were English. He was the Englishman of 
the type that made Free Trade, the most English 
of all things, since It was at once calculating and 
optimistic. He respected catacombs and gondolas, 
but that very respect was English. He wondered 
at brigands and volcanoes, but that very wonder 
was English. The very conception that Italy con- 
sists of these things was an English conception. 
The root things he never understood, the Roman 
legend, the ancient life of the Mediterranean, the 
world-old civilization of the vine and olive, the 



mystery of the immutable Church. He never 
understood these things, and I am glad he never 
understood them: he could only have understood 
them by ceasing to be the inspired cockney that he 
was, the rousing English Radical of the great 
Radical age in England. That spirit of his was 
one of the things that we have had which were 
truly national. All other forces we have borrowed, 
especially those which flatter us most. Imperial- 
ism is foreign, socialism is foreign, militarism is 
foreign, education is foreign, strictly even Liberal- 
ism is foreign. But Radicalism was our own ; as 
English as the hedge-rows. 

Dickens abroad, then, was for all serious pur- 
poses simply the Englishman abroad; the English- 
man abroad is for all serious purposes, simply the 
Englishman at home. Of this generalization one 
modification must be made. Dickens did feel a 
direct pleasure in the bright and busy exterior of 
the French life, the clean caps, the coloured uni- 
forms, the skies like blue enamel, the little green 
trees, the little white houses, the scene picked out 
in primary colours, like a child's picture-book. 
This he felt, and this he put (by a stroke of 
genius) into the mouth of Mrs. Lirriper, a London 
landlady on a holiday: for Dickens always knew 
that it is the simple and not the subtle who feel 



differences; and he saw all his colours through the 
clear eyes of the poor. And In thus taking to his 
heart the streets as It were, rather than the spires 
of the Continent, he showed beyond question that 
combination of which we have spoken — of com- 
mon sense with uncommon sensibility. For it is 
for the sake of the streets and shops and the coats 
and hats, that we should go abroad; they are far 
better worth going to see than the castles and 
cathedrals and Roman camps. For the wonders 
of the world are the same all over the world, at 
least all over the European world. Castles that 
throw valleys In shadow, minsters that strike the 
sky, roads so old that they seem to have been made 
by the gods, these are in all Christian countries. 
The marvels of man are at all our doors. A 
labourer hoeing turnips In Sussex has no need to be 
ignorant that the bones of Europe are the Roman 
roads. A clerk living In Lambeth has no need not 
to know that there was a Christian art exuberant 
in the thirteenth century; for only across the river 
he can see the live stones of the Middle Ages surg- 
ing together towards the stars. But exactly the 
things that do strike the traveller as extraordinary 
are the ordinary things, the food, the clothes, the 
vehicles; the strange things are cosmopolitan, the 
common things are national and peculiar. Cologne 



spire is lifted on the same arches as Canterbury; 
but the thing you cannot see out of Germany is 
a German beer-garden. There is no need for a 
Frenchman to go to look at Westminster Abbey 
as a piece of English architecture; It is not, in the 
special sense, a piece of English architecture. But 
a hansom cab is a piece of English architecture ; a 
thing produced by the peculiar poetry of our cities, 
a symbol of a certain reckless comfort which is 
really English; a thing to draw a pilgrimage of 
the nations. The imaginative Englishman will be 
found all day in a cafe; the imaginative Frenchman 
in a hansom cab. 

This sort of pleasure Dickens took in the Latin 
life; but no deeper kind. And the strongest of all 
possible indications of his fundamental detachment 
from it can be found in one fact. A great part of 
the time that he was in Italy he was engaged in 
writing " The Chimes," and such Christmas tales, 
tales of Christmas in the English towns, tales full 
of fog and snow and hail and happiness. 

Dickens could find In any street divergences be- 
tween man and man deeper than the divisions of 
nations. His fault was to exaggerate differences. 
He could find types almost as distinct as separate 
tribes of animals In his own brain and his own 
city, those two homes of a magnificent chaos. The 



only two southerners introduced prominently Into 
his novels, the two in " Little Dorrit," are popular 
English foreigners, I had almost said stage for- 
eigners. Villainy is, in English eyes, a southern 
trait, therefore one of the foreigners is villainous. 
Vivacity is, in English eyes, another southern trait, 
therefore the other foreigner is vivacious. But we 
can see from the outlines of both that Dickens 
did not have to go to Italy to get them. While 
poor panting millionaires, poor tired earls and 
poor God- forsaken American men of culture are 
plodding about Italy for literary inspiration, 
Charles Dickens made up the whole of that Italian 
romance (as I strongly suspect) from the faces 
of two London organ-grinders. 

In the sunlight of the southern world, he was 
still dreaming of the firelight of the north. Among 
the palaces and the white campanile, he shut his 
eyes to see Marylebone and dreamed a lovely 
dream of chimney-pots. He was not happy he 
said, without streets. The very foulness and smoke 
of London were lovable In his eyes and fill his 
Christmas tales with a vivid vapour. In the clear 
skies of the south he saw afar off the fog of Lon- 
don like a sunset cloud and longed to be In the 
core of It. 

This Christmas tone of Dickens, in connection 
1 60 


with his travels is a matter that can only be ex- 
pressed by a parallel with one of his other works. 
Much the same that has here been said of his 
" Pictures from Italy " may be said about his 
"Child's History of England;" with the differ- 
ence that while the " Pictures from Italy," do in 
a sense add to his fame, the " History of England " 
In almost every sense detracts from it. But the 
nature of the limitation Is the same. What Dick- 
ens was travelling in distant lands, that he was 
travelling in distant ages; a sturdy, sentimental 
English Radical with a large heart and a narrow 
mind. He could not help falling Into that beset- 
ting sin or weakness of the modern progressive, 
the habit of regarding the contemporary questions 
as the eternal questions and the latest word as the 
last. He could not get out of his head the instinc- 
tive conception that the real problem before St. 
Dunstan was whether he should support Lord John 
Russell or Sir Robert Peel. He could not help 
seeing the remotest peaks lit up by the raging bon- 
fire of his own passionate political crisis. He lived 
for the Instant and Its urgency; that Is, he did what 
St. Dunstan did. He lived in an eternal present 
like all simple men. It Is Indeed " A Child's His- 
tory of England; " but the child is the writer and 
not the reader. 



But Dickens In his cheapest cockney utilitarian- 
ism, was not only English, but unconsciously his- 
toric. Upon him descended the real tradition of 
" Merry England,'' and not upon the pallid 
medlaevallsts who thought they were reviving It. 
The Pre-Raphaelltes, the Gothlclsts, the admirers 
of the Middle Ages, had In their subtlety and sad- 
ness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had In 
his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle 
Ages. He was much more mediaeval in his at- 
tacks on medlaevalism than they were in their 
defences of it. It was he who had the things of 
Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories 
and brown ale and all the white roads of England. 
Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every 
man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw some- 
thing openly comic in men's motley trades. Sam 
Weller would have been a great gain to the Can- 
terbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. 
Rossettl's Damozel would have been a great bore, 
regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too prig- 
gish by the Wife of Bath. It is said that in the 
somewhat sickly Victorian revival of feudalism 
which was called " Young England," a nobleman 
hired a hermit to live in his grounds. It is also 
said that the hermit struck for more beer. 
Whether this anecdote be true or not, it is always 



told as showing a collapse from the ideal of the 
Middle Ages to the level of the present day. But 
in the mere act of striking for beer the holy man 
was very much more " mediaeval " than the fool 
who em.ployed him. 

It would be hard to find a better example of 
this than Dickens's great defence of Christmas. 
In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the 
old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for 
that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which 
to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day 
which is really a holiday. He had himself the 
most babyish ideas about the past. He supposed 
the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments 
and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a 
brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Util- 
itarian. But for all that he defended the mediaeval 
feast which was going out against the Utilitarian- 
ism which was coming in. He could only see all 
that was bad in mediaevalism. But he fought for 
all that was good in it. And he was all the more 
really in sympathy with the old strength and sim- 
plicity because he only knew that it was good and 
did not know that it was old. He cared as little 
for mediaevalism as the mediasvals did. He cared 
as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter 
and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of 



good livers. He would have been very much 
bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had 
explained to him the strange sunset tints of Lippi 
and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in looking on 
the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the 
living Middle Ages, on a piece of the old uproari- 
ous superstition still unbroken; and he hailed it 
like a new religion. The Dickens character ate 
pudding to an extent at which the modern mediae- 
valists turned pale. They would do every kind of 
honour to an old observance, except observing it. 
They would pay to a Church feast every sort of 
compliment except feasting. 

And (as I have said) as were his unconscious 
relations to our European past, so were his uncon- 
scious relations to England. He imagined himself 
to be, if anything, a sort of cosmopolitan; at any 
rate to be a champion of the charms and merits of 
continental lands against the arrogance of our 
island. But he was in truth very much more a 
champion of the old and genuine England against 
that comparatively cosmopolitan England which 
we have all lived to see. And here again the 
supreme example is Christmas. Christmas is, as I 
have said, one of numberless old European feasts 
of which the essence is the combination of religion 
with merry-making. But among those feasts it is 



also especially and distinctively English in the 
style of its merry-making and even in the style of 
its religion. For the character of Christmas (as 
distinct, for Instance, from the continental Easter) 
lies chiefly In two things: first on the terrestrial 
side the note of comfort rather than the note of 
brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian 
charity rather than Christian ecstasy. And com- 
fort Is, like charity, a very English Instinct. Nay, 
comfort Is, like charity, an English merit; though 
our comfort may and does degenerate into ma- 
terialism, just as our charity may (and does) de- 
generate Into laxity and make-believe. 

This ideal of comfort belongs peculiarly to Eng- 
land; It belongs peculiarly to Christmas; above 
all It belongs pre-eminently to Dickens. And It is 
astonishingly misunderstood. It is misunderstood 
by the continent of Europe, It is. If possible, still 
more misunderstood by the English of to-day. On 
the Continent the restaurateurs provide us with 
raw beef, as If we were savages; yet old English 
cooking takes as much care as French. And In 
England has arisen a parvenu patriotism which 
represents the English as everything but English; 
as a blend of Chinese stoicism, Latin militarism, 
Prussian rigidity, and American bad taste. And 
so England, whose fault Is gentility and whose 



virtue Is geniality, England with her tradition of 
the great gay gentlemen of Elizabeth, is repre- 
sented to the four quarters of the world (as In 
Mr. Kipling's religious poems) in the enormous 
Image of a solemn cad. And because It Is very 
difficult to be comfortable In the suburbs, the 
suburbs have voted that comfort is a gross and 
material thing. Comfort, especially this vision of 
Christmas comfort. Is the reverse of a gross or 
material thing. It Is far more poetical, properly 
speaking, than the Garden of Epicurus. It Is far 
more artistic than the Palace of Art. It Is more 
artistic because It Is based upon a contrast, a con- 
trast between the fire and wine within the house 
and the winter and the roaring rains without. It 
is far more poetical, because there Is In It a note 
of defence, almost of war; a note of being be- 
sieged by the snow and hail; of making merry 
In the belly of a fort. The man who said that 
an Englishman's house Is his castle said much more 
than he meant. The Englishman thinks of his 
house as something fortified, and provisioned, and 
his very surliness is at root romantic. And this 
sense would naturally be strongest In wild winter 
nights, when the lowered portcullis and the lifted 
drawbridge do not merely bar people out, but bar 
people in. The Englishman's house Is most sacred, 



not merely when the King cannot enter it, but 
when the Englishman cannot get out of it. 

This comfort, then, is an abstract thing, a prin- 
ciple. The English poor shut all their doors and 
windows till their rooms reek like the Black Hole. 
They are suffering for an idea. Mere animal 
hedonism would not dream, as we English do, of 
winter feasts and little rooms, but of eating fruit 
in large and idle gardens. Mere sensuality would 
desire to please all its senses. But to our good 
dreams this dark and dangerous background Is 
essential ; the highest pleasure we can Imagine Is a 
defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay. 
The word " comfort " Is not indeed the right 
word, it conveys too much of the slander of mere 
sense; the true word Is ''cosiness," a word not 
translatable. One, at least, of the essentials of 
It Is smallness, smallness in preference to large- 
ness, smallness for smallness's sake. The merry- 
maker wants a pleasant parlour, he would not give 
twopence for a pleasant continent. In our difficult 
time, of course, a fight for mere space has become 
necessary. Instead of being greedy for ale and 
Christmas pudding we are greedy for mere air, 
an equally sensual appetite. In abnormal condi- 
tions this Is wise; and the illimitable veldt Is an 
excellent thing for nervous people. But our fathers 



were large and healthy enough to make a thing 
humane, and not worry about whether it was hy- 
gienic. They were big enough to get into small 

Of this quite deliberate and artistic quality in 
the close Christmas chamber, the standing evi- 
dence is Dickens in Italy. He created these dim 
firelit tales like little dim red jewels, as an artistic 
necessity, in the centre of an endless summer. 
Amid the white cities of Tuscany he hungered for 
something romantic, and wrote about a rainy 
Christmas. Amid the pictures of the Uffizi he 
starved for something beautiful, and fed his mem- 
ory on London fog. His feeling for the fog was 
especially poignant and typical. In the first of his 
Christmas tales, the popular " Christmas Carol," 
he suggested the very soul of it in one simile, when 
he spoke of the dense air, suggesting that " Nature 
was brewing on a large scale." This sense of the 
thick atmosphere as something to eat or drink, 
something not only solid but satisfactory, may 
seem almost insane, but it is no exaggeration of 
Dickens's emotion. We speak of a fog " that you 
could cut with a knife." Dickens would have liked 
the phrase as suggesting that the fog was a colos- 
sal cake. He liked even more his own phrase of 
the Titanic brewery, and no dream would have 



given him a wilder pleasure than to grope his way 
to some such tremendous vats and drink the ale 
of the giants. 

There is a current prejudice against fogs, and 
Dickens, perhaps, is their only poet. Considered 
hygienically no doubt this may be more or less 
excusable. But, considered poetically, fog is not 
undeserving, it has a real significance. We have in 
our great cities abolished the clean and sahe dark- 
ness of the country. We have outlawed night and 
sent her wandering in wild meadows; we have lit 
eternal watch-fires against her return. We have 
made a new cosmos, and as a consequence our own 
sun and stars. And, as a consequence also, and 
most justly, we have made our own darkness. Just 
as every lamp is a warm human moon, so every 
fog is a rich human nightfall. If it were not for 
this mystic accident we should never see darkness, 
and he who has never seen darkness has never seen 
the sun. Fog for us is the chief form of that 
outward pressure which compresses mere luxury 
into real comfort. It makes the world small, in 
the same spirit as in that common and happy cry 
that the world is small, meaning that it is full of 
friends. The first man that emerges out of the 
mist with a light, is for us Prometheus, a saviour 
bringing fire to men. He is that greatest and best 



of all men, greater than the heroes, better than 
the saints, Man Friday. Every rumble of a cart, 
every cry in the distance, marks the heart of hu- 
manity beating undaunted in the darkness. It is 
wholly human; man toiling in his own cloud. If 
real darkness is like the embrace of God, this is 
the dark embrace of man. 

In such a sacred cloud the tale called " The 
Christmas Carol " begins, the first and most typi- 
cal of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant 
to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, be- 
cause it is characteristic of Dickens that his at- 
mospheres are more . important than his stories. 
The Christmas atmosphere is more important than 
Scrooge, or the ghosts either ; in a sense, the back- 
ground is more important than the figures. The 
same thing may be noticed in his dealings with 
that other atmosphere (besides that of good hu- 
mour) which he excelled in creating, an atmos- 
phere of mystery and wrong, such as that which 
gathers round Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, 
or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride. 
Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the 
story, which often seems disappointing in com- 
parison. The secrecy is sensational; the secret 
is tame. The surface of the thing seems more 
awful than the core of it. It seems almost as if 



these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. 
Clennam, Miss Havlsham and Miss Flite, Nemo 
and Sally Brass, were keeping something back 
from the author as well as from the reader. When 
the book closes we do not know their real secret. 
They soothed the optimistic Dickens with some- 
thing less terrible than the truth. The dark house 
of Arthur Clennam's childhood really depresses 
us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in 
hell, where live the children of that unique dis- 
pensation which theologians call Calvinism and 
Christians devil-worship. But some stranger crime 
had really been done there, some more monstrous 
blasphemy or human sacrifice than the suppression 
of some silly document advantageous to the silly 
Dorrits. Something worse than a common tale 
of jilting lay behind the masquerade and madness 
of the awful Miss Havisham. Something worse 
was whispered by the misshapen Quilp to the sin- 
ister Sally in that wild, wet summer-house by the 
river, something worse than the clumsy plot 
against the clumsy Kit. These dark pictures seem 
almost as if they were literally visions; things, 
that is, that Dickens saw but did not understand. 

And as with his backgrounds of gloom, so with 
his backgrounds of good-will, in such tales as 
" The Christmas Carol." The tone of the tale is 



kept throughout In a happy monotony, though the 
tale Is everywhere Irregular and In some places 
weak. It has the same kind of artistic unity that 
belongs to a dream. A dream may begin with the 
end of the world and end with a tea-party; but 
either the end of the world will seem as trivial 
as a tea-party or that tea-party will be as terrible 
as the day of doom. The Incidents change wildly; 
the story scarcely changes at all. " The Christmas 
Carol " Is a kind of philanthropic dream, an enjoy- 
able nightmare, In which the scenes shift bewUder- 
Ingly and seem as miscellaneous as the pictures In 
a scrap-book, but In which there Is one constant 
state of the soul, a state of rowdy benediction and 
a hunger for human faces. The beginning is about 
a winter day and a miser; yet the beginning Is In 
no way bleak. The author starts with a kind of 
happy howl ; he bangs on our door like a drunken 
carol singer; his style Is festive and popular; he 
compares the snow and hall to philanthropists who 
" come down handsomely "; he compares the fog 
to unlimited beer. Scrooge is not really Inhuman 
at the beginning any more than he Is at the end. 
There Is a heartiness In his inhospitable sentiments 
that is akin to humour and therefore to humanity; 
he Is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I 
strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all 



his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the 
story do not lie In the mechanical plot of It, the 
repentance of Scrooge, probable or Improbable; 
they He In the great furnace of real happiness that 
glows through Scrooge and everything round him; 
that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether 
the Christmas visions would or would not convert 
Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or no the 
visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, 
Present, and Future, they were evoked by that 
truly exalted order of angels who are correctly 
called High Spirits. They are impelled and sus- 
tained by a quality which our contemporary artists 
ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently 
lived is as normal and attainable as sleep, positive, 
passionate, conscious joy. The story sings from end 
to end like a happy man going home; and, like a 
happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. 
It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclama- 
tory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas Carol. 
Dickens, as has been said, went to Italy with 
this kindly cloud still about him, still meditating 
on Yule mysteries. Among the olives and the 
orange-trees he wrote his second great Christmas 
tale, "The Chimes" (at Genoa in 1844), a 
Christmas tale only differing from " The Christ- 
mas Carol " in being fuller of the grey rains of 



winter and the north. " The Chimes " Is, like the 
" Carol," an appeal for charity and mirth, but It 
Is a stern and fighting appeal: If the other Is a 
Christmas carol, this Is a Christmas war-song. In 
It Dickens hurled himself with even more than 
his usual militant joy and scorn into an attack upon 
a cant, which he said made his blood boil. This 
cant was nothing more nor less than the whole 
tone taken by three-quarters of the pohtical and 
economic world towards the poor. It was a vague 
and vulgar Benthamism with a rollicking Tory 
touch in it. It explained to the poor their duties 
with a cold and coarse philanthropy unendurable 
by any free man. It had also at its command a 
kind of brutal banter, a loud good-humour which 
Dickens sketches savagely In Alderman Cute. He 
fell furiously on all their ideas: the cheap advice 
to live cheaply, the base advice to live basely, 
above all, the preposterous primary assumption 
that the rich are to advise the poor and not the 
poor the rich. There were and are hundreds of 
these benevolent bullies. Some say that the poor 
should give up having children, which means that 
they should give up their great virtue of sexual 
sanity. Some say that they should give up 
" treating " each other, which means that they 
should give up all that remains to them of the 


virtue of hospitality. Against all of this Dickens 
thundered very thoroughly In " The Chimes." It 
may be remarked In passing that this affords an- 
other Instance of a confusion already referred to, 
the confusion whereby Dickens supposed himself 
to be exalting the present over the past, whereas 
he was really dealing deadly blows at things 
strictly peculiar to the present. Embedded In this 
very book is a somewhat useless interview be- 
tween Trotty Veck and the church bells, in which 
the latter lectures the former for having supposed 
(why I don't know) that they were expressing 
regret for the disappearance of the Middle Ages. 
There Is no reason why Trotty Veck or any one 
else should idealize the Middle Ages, but certainly 
he was the last man In the world to be asked to 
idealize the nineteenth century, seeing that the 
smug and stingy philosophy, which poisons his life 
through the book, was an exclusive creation of that 
century. But, as I have said before, the fieriest 
mediaevalist may forgive Dickens for disliking the 
good things the Middle Ages took away, consider- 
ing how he loved whatever good things the Mid- 
dle Ages left behind. It matters very little that 
he hated old feudal castles when they were already 
old. It matters very much that he hated the New 
Poor Law while it was still new. 



The moral of this matter In '' The Chimes " Is 
essential. Dickens had sympathy with the poor 
in the Greek and literal sense; he suffered with 
them mentally; for the things that Irritated them 
were the things that Irritated him. He did not 
pity the people, or even champion the people, or 
even merely love the people; In this matter he 
was the people. He alone In our literature is the 
voice not merely of the social substratum, but even 
of the subconsciousness of the substratum. He 
utters the secret anger of the humble. He says 
what the uneducated only think, or even only feel, 
about the educated. And in nothing is he so 
genuinely such a voice as In this fact of his fiercest 
mood being reserved for methods that are counted 
scientific and progressive. Pure and exalted athe- 
ists talk themselves into believing that the work- 
ing-classes are turning with indignant scorn from 
the churches. The working-classes are not indig- 
nant against the churches in the least. The things 
the working-classes really are indignant against 
are the hospitals. The people has no definite dis- 
belief in the temples of theology. The people has 
a very fiery and practical disbelief in the temples 
of physical science. The things the poor hate are 
the modern things, the rationalistic things — doc- 
tors, inspectors, poor law guardians, professional 



philanthropy. They never showed any reluctance 
to be helped by the old and corrupt monasteries. 
They will often die rather than be helped by the 
modern and efficient workhouse. Of all this anger, 
good or bad, Dickens is the voice of an accusing 
energy. When, in " The Christmas Carol," 
Scrooge refers to the surplus population, the Spirit 
tells him, very justly, not to speak till he knows 
what the surplus is and where it is. The implica- 
tion is severe but sound. When a group of su- 
perciliously benevolent economists look down into 
the abyss for the surplus population, assuredly 
there is only one answer that should be given to 
them; and that is to say, " If there is a surplus, 
you are a surplus." And if any one were ever 
cut off, they would be. If the barricades went up 
in our streets and the poor became masters, I think 
the priests w^ould escape, I fear the gentlemen 
would; but I believe the gutters would be simply 
running with the blood of philanthropists. 

Lastly, he was at one with the poor in this 
chief matter of Christmas, in the matter, that is, 
of special festivity. There is nothing on which 
the poor are more criticized than on the point of 
spending large sums on small feasts; and though 
there are material difficulties, there is nothing in 
which they are more right. It is said that a Bos- 



ton paradox-monger said, " Give us the luxuries of 
life and we will dispense with the necessities." 
But it is the w^hole human race that says it, from 
the first savage wearing feathers instead of clothes 
to the last costerm.onger having a treat instead of 
three meals. 

The third of his Christmas stories, " The 
Cricket on the Hearth," calls for no extensive com- 
ment, though It Is very characteristic. It has all 
the qualities which we have called dominant quali- 
ties in his Christmas sentiment. It has cosiness, 
that Is the comfort that depends upon a discomfort 
surrounding It. It has a sympathy with the poor, 
and especially with the extravagance of the poor; 
with what may be called the temporary wealth of 
the poor. It has the sentiment of the hearth, that 
Is, the sentiment of the open fire being the red 
heart of the room. That open fire Is the veritable 
flame of England, still kept burning In the midst 
of a mean civilization of stoves. But everything 
that Is valuable In " The Cricket on the Hearth " 
Is perhaps as well expressed In the title as It Is In 
the story. The tale itself, In spite of some of those 
Inimitable things that Dickens never failed to say. 
Is a little too comfortable to be quite convincing. 
" The Christmas Carol " Is the conversion of an 
anti-Christmas character. " The Chimes " is a 



slaughter of anti-Christmas characters. " The 
Cricket," perhaps, fails for lack of this crusading 
note. For everything has its weak side, and when 
full justice has been done to this neglected note of 
poetic comfort, we must remember that it has its 
very real weak side. The defect of it in the work 
of Dickens was that he tended sometimes to pile 
up the cushions until none of the characters could 
move. He is so much interested in effecting his 
state of static happiness that he forgets to make 
a story at all. His princes at the start of the 
story begin to live happily ever afterwards. We 
feel this strongly in " Master Humphrey's Clock," 
and we feel it sometimes in these Christmas stories. 
He makes his characters so comfortable that his 
characters begin to dream and drivel. And he 
makes his reader so comfortable that his reader 
goes to sleep. 

The actual tale of the carrier and his wife 
sounds somewhat sleepily in our ears; we cannot 
keep our attention fixed on it, though we are con- 
scious of a kind of warmth from it as from a great 
wood fire. We know so well that everything will 
soon be all right that we do not suspect when 
the carrier suspects, and are not frightened when 
the gruff Tackleton growls. The sound of the 
Christmas festivities at the end comes fainter on 



our ears than did the shout of the Cratchlts or the 
bells of Trotty Veck. All the good figures that 
followed Scrooge when he came growling out of 
the fog fade into the fog again. 





Dickens was back In London by the June of 
1845. About this time he became the first editor 
of The Daily News, a paper which he had largely 
planned and suggested, and which, I trust, re- 
members its semi-divine origin. That his thoughts 
had been running, as suggested In the last chapter, 
somewhat monotonously on his Christmas domes- 
ticities, Is again suggested by the rather singular 
fact that he originally wished The Daily News 
to be called The Cricket. Probably he was 
haunted again with his old vision of a homely, 
tale-telling periodical such as had broken off In 
" Master Humphrey's Clock." About this time, 
however, he was peculiarly unsettled. Almost as 
soon as he had taken the editorship he threw It 
up; and having only recently come back to Eng- 
land, he soon made up his mind to go back to the 
Continent. In the May of 1846 he ran over to 
Switzerland and tried to write " Dombey and 
Son '' at Lausanne. Tried to, I say, because his 
letters are full of an angry impotence. He could 



not get on. He attributed this especially to his 
love of London and his loss of it, " the absence of 
streets and numbers of figures. . . . My figures 
seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about 
them." But he also, with shrewdness, attributed 
it more generally to the laxer and more wandering 
life he had led for the last two years, the American 
tour, the Italian tour, diversified, generally speak- 
ing, only with slight literary productions. His 
ways were never punctual or healthy, but they 
were also never unconscientious as far as work 
was concerned. If he walked all night he could 
write all day. But in this strange exile or inter- 
regnum he did not seem able to fall into any habits, 
even bad habits. A restlessness beyond all his 
experience had fallen for a season upon the most 
restless of the children of men. 

It may be a mere coincidence : but this break in 
his life very nearly coincided with the important 
break in his art. " Dombey and Son," planned in 
all probability some time before, was destined to 
be the last of a quite definite series, the early novels 
of Dickens. The difference between the books 
from the beginning up to " Dombey," and the 
books from " David Copperfield " to the end may 
be hard to state dogmatically, but is evident to 
every one with any literary sense. Very coarsely, 



the case may be put by saying that he diminished, 
in the story as a whole, the practice of pure cari- 
cature. Still more coarsely it may be put In the 
phrase that he began to practise realism. If we 
take Mr. Stiggins, say, as a clergyman depicted at 
the beginning of his literary career, and Mr. 
Crisparkle, say, as a clergyman depicted at the 
end of it, it is evident that the difference does not 
merely consist in the fact that the first is a less 
desirable clergyman than the second. It consists 
In the nature of our desire for either of them. 
The glory of Mr. Crisparkle partly consists In the 
fact that he might really exist anywhere, In any 
country town into which we may happen to stray. 
The glory of Mr. Stiggins wholly consists In the 
fact that he could not possibly exist anywhere ex- 
cept In the head of Dickens. Dickens has the 
secret recipe of that divine dish. In some sense, >^ 
therefore, when we say that he became less of a 
caricaturist we mean that he became less of a 
creator. That original violent vision of all things 
which he had seen from his boyhood began to be 
mixed with other men's milder visions and with 
the light of common day. He began to under- 
stand and practise other than his own mad merits ; 
began to have some movement towards the merits 
of other writers, towards the mixed emotion of 



Thackeray, or the solidity of George Eliot. And 
this must be said for the process; that the fierce 
wine of Dickens could endure some dilution. On 
the whole, perhaps, his primal personalism was all 
the better when surging against some saner re- 
straints. Perhaps a flavour of strong Stiggins 
goes a long way. Perhaps the colossal Crummies 
might be cut down into six or seven quite credible 
characters. For my own part, for reasons which 
I shall afterwards mention, I am in real doubt 
about the advantage of this realistic education of 
Dickens. I am not sure that it made his books 
better; but I am sure it made them less bad. He 
made fewer mistakes undoubtedly; he succeeded 
In eliminating much of the mere rant or cant of 
his first books; he threw away much of the old 
padding, all the more annoying, perhaps, in a 
literary sense, because he did not mean it for pad- 
ding, but for essential eloquence. But he did not 
produce anything actually better than Mr. Chuck- 
ster. But then there is nothing better than Mr. 
Chuckster. Certain works of art, such as the 
Venus of Milo, exhaust our aspiration. Upon the 
whole this may, perhaps, be safely said of the 
transition. Those who have any doubt about 
Dickens can have no doubt of the superiority of 
the later books. Beyond question they have less 



of what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, If 
you are in the company of any ardent adorers of 
Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are) do 
not insist too urgently and exclusively on the splen- 
dour of Dickens's last works, or they will discover 
that you do not like him. 

'' Dombey and Son '' is the last novel in the first 
manner: "David Copperfield " Is the first novel 
In the last. The increase in care and realism In 
the second of the two is almost startling. Yet 
even in " Dombey and Son " we can see the coming 
of a change, however faint, if we compare it with 
his first fantasies, such as " Nicholas Nickleby " 
or " The Old Curiosity Shop." The central story 
is still melodrama, but it is much more tactful and 
effective melodrama. Melodrama is a form of 
art, legitimate like any other, as noble as farce, 
almost as noble as pantomime. The essence of 
melodrama is that it appeals to the moral sense 
in a highly simplified state, just as farce appeals 
to the sense of humour In a highly simplified state. 
Farce creates people who are so Intellectually sim- 
ple as to hide in packing-cases or pretend to be 
their own aunts. Melodrama creates people so 
morally simple as to kill their enemies In Oxford 
Street, and repent on seeing their mother's photo- 
graph. The object of the simplification in farce 



and melodrama Is the same, and quite artistically 
legitimate, the object of gaining a resounding ra- 
pidity of action which subtleties would obstruct. 
And this can be done well or ill. The simplified 
villain can be a spirited charcoal sketch or a mere 
black smudge. Carker is a spirited charcoal 
sketch: Ralph Nickleby is a mere black smudge. 
The tragedy of Edith Dombey teems with unlikeli- 
hood, but it teems with life. That Dombey should 
give his own wife censure through his own busi- 
ness manager Is impossible, I will not say In a 
gentleman, but in a person of ordinary sane self- 
conceit. But once having got the inconceivable 
trio before the footlights, Dickens gives us good 
ringing dialogue, very different from the mere 
rants in which Ralph Nickleby figures in the un- 
imaginable character of a rhetorical money-lender. 
And there Is another point of technical Improve- 
ment In this book over such books as " Nicholas 
Nickleby.*' It has not only a basic idea, but a 
good basic Idea. There Is a real artistic oppor- 
tunity In the conception of a solemn and selfish 
man of affairs, feeling for his male heir his first 
and last emotion, mingled of a thin flame of ten- 
derness and a strong flame of pride. But with all 
these possibilities, the serious episode of the Dom- 
beys serves ultimately only to show how unfitted 



Dickens was for such things, how fitted he was for 
something opposite. 

The Incurable poetic character, the hopelessly 
non-reallstic character of Dickens's essential genius 
could not have a better example than the story of 
the Dombeys. For the story itself is probable, 
It Is the treatment that makes It unreal. In at- 
tempting to paint the dark pagan devotion of the 
father (as distinct from the ecstatic and Christian 
devotion of the mother) , Dickens was painting 
something that was really there. This is no wild 
theme, like the wanderings of Nell's grandfather, 
or the marriage of Gride. A man of Dombey's 
type would love his son as he loves Paul. He 
would neglect his daughter as he neglects Flor- 
ence. And yet we feel the utter unreality of it 
all, while we feel the utter reality of monsters 
like Stigglns or Mantallni. Dickens could only 
work in his own way, and that way was the wild 
way. We may almost say this : that he could only 
make his characters probable If he was allowed to 
make them Impossible. Give him license to say 
and do anything, and he could create beings as 
vivid as our own aunts and uncles. Keep him to 
likelihood and he could not tell the plainest tale 
so as to make it seem likely. The story of " Pick- 
w^Ick " is credible, although it is not possible. The 



story of Florence Dombey is incredible although 
it is true. 

An excellent example can be found in the same 
story. Major Bagstock is a grotesque, and yet he 
contains touch after touch of Dickens's quiet and 
sane observation of things as they are. He was 
always most accurate when he was most fantastic. 
Dombey and Florence are perfectly reasonable, 
but we simply know that they do not exist. The 
Major is mountainously exaggerated, but we all 
feel that we have met him at Brighton. Nor is 
the rationale of the paradox difficult to see; Dick- 
ens exaggerated when he had found a real truth 
to exaggerate. It is a deadly error (an error at 
the back of much of the false placidity of our 
politics) to suppose that lies are told with excess 
and luxuriance, and truths told with modesty and 
restraint. Some of the most frantic lies on the 
face of life are told with modesty and restraint; 
for the simple reason that only modesty and re- 
straint will save them. Many official declarations 
are just as dignified as Mr. Dombey, because they 
are just as fictitious. On the other hand, the man 
who has found a truth dances about like a boy 
who has found a shilling; he breaks into extrava- 
gances, as the Christian churches broke into gar- 
goyles. In one sense truth alone can be exag- 



gerated; nothing else can stand the strain. The 
outrageous Bagstock Is a glowing and glaring ex- 
aggeration of a thing we have all seen in life — 
the worst and most dangerous of all its hypocrisies. 
For the worst and most dangerous hypocrite is 
not he who affects unpopular virtue, but he who 
affects popular vice. The jolly fellow of the sa- 
loon bar and the racecourse is the real deceiver 
of mankind; he has misled more than any false 
prophet, and his victims cry to him out of hell. 
The excellence of the Bagstock conception can best 
be seen if we compare It v/ith the much weaker 
and more Imiprobable knavery of Pecksniff. It 
would not be worth a man's while, with any 
worldly object, to pretend to be a holy and high- 
minded architect. The world does not admire 
holy and high-minded architects. The world does 
admire rough and tough old army men who swear 
at waiters and wink at women. Major Bagstock 
is simply the perfect prophecy of that decadent 
jingoism which corrupted England of late years. 
England has been duped, not by the cant of good- 
ness, but by the cant of badness. It has been 
fascinated by a quite fictitious cynicism, and 
reached that last and strangest of all impostures 
In which the mask is as repulsive as the face., 
" Dombey and Son " provides us with yet an- 


other Instance of this general fact In Dickens. 
He could only get to the most solemn emotions 
adequately If he got to them through the grotesque. 
He could only, so to speak, really get Into the Inner 
chamber by coming down the chimney, like his 
own most lovable lunatic In " Nicholas NIckleby." 
A good example Is such a character as Toots. 
Toots Is what none of Dickens's dignified charac- 
ters are. In the most serious sense, a true lover. 
He is the twin of Romeo. He has passion, hu- 
mility, self-knowledge, a mind lifted Into all mag- 
nanimous thoughts, everything that goes with the 
best kind of romantic love. His excellence In the 
art of love can only be expressed by the somewhat 
violent expression that he Is as good a lover as 
Walter Gay Is a bad one. Florence surely de- 
served her father's scorn If she could prefer Gay 
to Toots. It Is neither a joke nor any kind of 
exaggeration to say that In the vacillations of 
Toots, Dickens not only came nearer to the 
psychology of true love than he ever came else- 
where, but nearer than any one else ever came. 
To ask for the loved one, and then not to dare to 
cross the threshold, to be Invited by her, to long 
to accept, and then to He In order to decline, these 
are the funny things that Mr. Toots did, and that 
every honest man who yells with laughter at him 



has done also. For the moment, however, I only 
mention this matter as a pendent case to the case 
of Major Bagstock, an example of the way in 
which Dickens had to be ridiculous In order to 
begin to be true. His characters that begin solemn 
end futile; his characters that begin frivolous end 
solemn in the best sense. His foolish figures are 
not only more entertaining than his serious figures, 
they are also much more serious. The Marchion- 
ess is not only much more laughable than Little 
Nell ; she is also much more of all that Little Nell 
was meant to be; much more really devoted, pa- 
thetic, and brave. Dick Swiveller Is not only a 
much funnier fellow than Kit, he is also a much 
more genuine fellow, being free from that slight 
stain of " meekness," or the snobbishness of the 
respectable poor, which the wise and perfect 
Chuckster wisely and perfectly perceived In Kit. 
Susan Nipper is not only more of a comic charac- 
ter than Florence; she is more of a heroine than 
Florence any day of the week. In " Our Mutual 
Friend " we do not, for some reason or other, feel 
really very much excited about the fall or rescue 
of Lizzie Hexam, She seems too romantic to be 
really pathetic. But we do feel excited about the 
rescue of Miss Lammle, because she is, like Toots, 
a holy fool; because her pink nose and pink el- 



bows, and candid outcry and open indecent affec- 
tions do convey to us a sense of innocence helpless 
among human dragons, of Andromeda tied naked 
to a rock. Dickens had to make a character hu- 
morous before he could make it human ; it was the 
only way he knew, and he ought to have always 
adhered to it. Whether he knew It or not, the 
only two really touching figures in " Martin Chuz- 
zlewlt " are the Misses Pecksniff. Of the things 
he tried to treat unsmilingly and grandly we can 
all make game to our heart's content. But when 
once he has laughed at a thing it Is sacred for ever. 
" Dombey," however, means first and foremost 
the finale of the early Dickens. It is difficult to 
say exactly in what It Is that we perceive that the 
old crudity ends there, and does not reappear in 
" David Copperfield " or in any of the novels after 
It. But so certainly it Is. In detached scenes and 
characters. Indeed, Dickens kept up his farcical note 
almost or quite to the end. But this is the last 
farce; this Is the last work In which a farcical 
license Is tacitly claimed, a farcical note struck to 
start with. And in a sense his next novel may be 
called his first novel. But the growth of this great 
novel, ** David Copperfield," is a thing very In- 
teresting, but at the same time very dark, for It Is 
a growth In the soul. We have seen that Dick- 



ens's mind was In a stir of change; that he was 
dreaming of art, and even of realism. Hugely 
delighted as he Invariably was with his own books, 
he was humble enough to be ambitious. He was 
even humble enough to be envious. In the matter 
of art, for Instance, In the narrower sense, of ar- 
rangement and proportion In fictitious things, he 
began to be conscious of his deficiency, and even, 
In a stormy sort of way, ashamed of It; he tried 
to gain completeness even while raging at any one 
who called him Incomplete. And in this matter of 
artistic construction, his ambition (and his success 
too) grew steadily up to the instant of his death. 
The end finds him attempting things that are at 
the opposite pole to the frank formlessness of 
" Pickwick." His last book, " The Mystery of 
Edwin Drood," depends entirely upon construc- 
tion, even upon a centralized strategy. He staked 
everything upon a plot; he who had been the 
weakest of plotters, weaker than Sim Tappertit. 
He essayed a detective story, he who could never 
keep a secret; and he has kept it to this day. A 
new Dickens was really being born when Dickens 

And as with art, so with reality. He wished to 
show that he could construct as well as anybody. 
He also wished to show that he could be as ac- 



curate as anybody. And In this connection (as 
in many others) we must recur constantly to the 
facts mentioned in connection with America and 
with his money-matters. We must recur, I mean, 
to the central fact that his desires were extrava- 
gant in quantity, but not in quality; that his wishes 
were excessive, but not eccentric. It must never be 
forgotten that sanity was his Ideal, even when he 
seemed almost insane. It was thus with his lite- 
rary aspirations. He was brilliant; but he wished 
sincerely to be solid. Nobody out of an asylum 
could deny that he was a genius and an unique 
writer; but he did not wish to be an unique writer, 
but an universal writer. Much of the manufac- 
tured pathos or rhetoric against which his enemies 
quite rightly rail. Is really due to his desire to give 
all sides of life at once, to make his book a cosmos 
instead of a tale. He was sometimes really vulgar 
in his wish to be a literary Whiteley, an universal 
provider. Thus It was that he felt about realism 
and truth to life. Nothing is easier than to defend 
Dickens as Dickens, but Dickens wished to be 
everybody else. Nothing is easier than to defend 
Dickens's world as a fairyland, of which he alone 
has the key; to defend him as one defends Maeter- 
linck, or any other original writer. But Dickens 
was not content with being original, he had a wild 



wish to be true. He loved truth so much in the 
abstract that he sacrificed to the shadow of it his 
own glory. He denied his own divine originality, 
and pretended that he had plagiarized from life. 
He disowned his own soul's children, and said he 
had picked them up in the street. 

And in this mixed and heated mood of anger 
and ambition, vanity and doubt, a new and great 
design was born. He loved to be romantic, yet he 
desired to be real. How if he wrote of a thing 
that was real and showed that it was romantic? 
He loved real life; but he also loved his own way. 
How if he wrote his own real life, but wrote it in 
his own way? How if he showed the carping 
critics who doubted the existence of his strange 
characters, his own yet stranger existence? How 
if he forced these pedants and unbelievers to admit 
that Weller and Pecksniff, Crummies and Swivel- 
ler, whom they thought so improbably wild and 
wonderful, were less wild and wonderful than 
Charles Dickens? What if he ended the quarrels 
about whether his romances could occur, by con- 
fessing that his romance had occurred? 

For some time past, probably during the greater 
part of his life, he had made notes for an auto- 
biography. I have already quoted an admirable 
passage from these notes, a passage reproduced 



in " David Copperfield," with little more altera- 
tion than a change of proper names — the passage 
which describes Captain Porter and the debtor^s 
petition In the Marshalsea. But he probably per- 
ceived at last what a less keen Intelligence must 
ultimately have perceived, that if an autobiog- 
raphy is really to be honest it must be turned Into 
a work of fiction. If It Is really to tell the truth, 
It must at all costs profess not to. No man dare 
say of himself, over his own name, how badly he 
has behaved. No man dare say of himself, over 
his own name, how well he has behaved. More- 
over, of course a touch of fiction is almost always 
essential to the real conveying of fact, because 
fact, as experienced, has a fragmentarlness which 
is bewildering at first hand and quite blinding at 
second hand. Facts have at least to be sorted into 
compartments and the proper head and tail given 
to each. The perfection and polntedness of art 
are a sort of substitute for the pungency of actual- 
ity. Without this selection and completion our 
life seems a tangle of unfinished tales, a heap of 
novels, all volume one. Dickens determined to 
make one complete novel of It. 

For though there are many other aspects of 
" David Copperfield," this autobiographical as- 
pect is, after all, the greatest. The point of the 



book Is, that unlike all the other books of Dick- 
ens, It Is concerned with quite common actualities, 
but It Is concerned with them warmly and with the 
war-like sympathies. It is not only both realistic 
and romantic; It Is realistic because It Is romantic. 
It Is human nature described with the human ex- 
aggeration. We all know the actual types in the 
book; they are not like the turgid and preternatu- 
ral types elsewhere In Dickens. They are not 
purely poetic creations like Mr. Kenwiggs or Mr. 
Bunsby. We all know that they exist. We all 
know the stiff-necked and humorous old-fashioned 
nurse, so conventional and yet so original, so de- 
pendent and yet so independent. We all know the 
Intrusive stepfather, the abstract strange male, 
coarse, handsome, sulky, successful; a breaker-up 
of homes. We all know the erect and sardonic 
spinster, the spinster who is so mad in small things 
and so sane In great ones. We all know the cock 
of the school ; we all know Steerforth, the creature 
whom the gods love and even the servants re- 
spect. We know his poor and aristocratic mother, 
so proud, so gratified, so desolate. We know the 
Rosa Dartle type, the lonely woman in whom 
affection itself has stagnated into a sort of 

But while these are real characters they are 



real characters lit up with the colours of youth 
and passion. They are real people romantically 
felt; that Is to say, they are real people felt as 
real people feel them. They are exaggerated, like 
all Dickens's figures : but they are not exaggerated 
as personalities are exaggerated by an artist; they 
are exaggerated as personalities are exaggerated 
by their own friends and enemies. The strong 
souls are seen through the glorious haze of the 
emotions that strong souls really create. We have 
Murdstone as he would be to a boy who hated 
him ; and rightly, for a boy would hate him. We 
have Steerforth as he would be to a boy who 
adored him; and rightly, for a boy would adore 
him. It may be that if these persons had a mere 
terrestrial existence, they appeared to other eyes 
more Insignificant. It may be that Murdstone in 
common life was only a heavy business man with 
a human side that David was too sulky to find. 
It may be that Steerforth was only an Inch or 
two taller than David, and only a shade or two 
above him In the lower middle classes; but this 
does not make the book less true. In cataloguing 
the facts of life the author must not omit that 
massive fact, Illusion. 

When we say the book Is true to life we must 
stipulate that It Is especially true to youth; even 



to boyhood. All the characters seem a little larger 
than they really were, for David is looking up at 
them. And the early pages of the book are In 
particular astonishingly vivid. Parts of It seem 
like fragments of our forgotten infancy. The 
dark house of childhood, the loneliness, the things 
half understood, the nurse Avith her Inscrutable 
sulks and her more inscrutable tenderness, the sud- 
den deportations to distant places, the seaside and 
Its childish friendships, all this stirs In us when 
we read it, like something out of a previous exist-" 
ence. Above all, Dickens has excellently depicted 
the child enthroned In that humble circle which 
only In after years he perceives to have been 
humble. Modern and cultured persons, I believe, 
object to their children seeing kitchen company or 
being taught by a wom^an like Peggoty. But 
surely It Is more Important to be educated In a 
sense of human dignity and equality than In any- 
thing else In the world. And a child who has once 
had to respect a kind and capable woman of the 
lower classes will respect the lower classes for 
ever. The true way to overcome the evil In class 
distinctions Is not to denounce them as revolution- 
ists denounce them, but to Ignore them as children 
Ignore them. 

The early youth of David Copperfield is psy- 


chologically almost as good as his childhood. In 
one touch especially Dickens pierced the very core 
of the sensibility of boyhood; it was when he made 
David more afraid of a manservant than of any- 
body or anything else. The lowering Murdstone, 
the awful Mrs. Steerforth are not so alarming to 
him as Mr. Littimer, the unimpeachable gentle- 
man's gentleman. This is exquisitely true to the 
masculine emotions, especially in their undevel- 
oped state. A youth of common courage does not 
fear anything violent, but he is in mortal fear of 
anything correct. This may or may not be the 
reason that so few female writers understand their 
male characters, but this fact remains: that the 
more sincere and passionate and even headlong a 
lad is the more certain he Is to be conventional. 
The bolder and freer he seems the more the tra- 
ditions of the college or the rules of the club will 
hold him with their gyves of gossamer; and the 
less afraid he is of his enemies the more cravenly 
he will be afraid of his friends. Herein lies indeed 
the darkest peril of our ethical doubt and chaos. 
The fear Is that as morals become less urgent, 
manners will become more so ; and men who have 
forgotten the fear of God will retain the fear of 
Littimer. We shall merely sink Into a much 
meaner bondage. For when you break the great 



laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get 
anarchy. You get the small laws. 

The sting and strength of this piece of fiction, 
then, do (by a rare accident) lie in the circum- 
stance that it was so largely founded on fact. 
" David Copperfield " is the great answer of a 
great romancer to the realists. David says in 
effect: "What! you say that the Dickens tales 
are too purple really to have happened! Why, 
this is what happened to me, and it seemed the 
most purple of all. You say that the Dickens 
heroes are too handsome and triumphant! Why, 
no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever so hand- 
some and triumphant as the Head Boy seemed to 
me walking before me in the sun. You say the 
Dickens villains are too black! Why, there was 
no ink in the deviPs ink-stand black enough for 
my own stepfather when I had to live in the same 
house with him. The facts are quite the other 
way to what you suppose. This life of grey 
studies and half tones, the absence of which you 
regret in Dickens, is only life as it is looked at. 
This life of heroes and villains is life as it is lived. 
The life a man knows best is exactly the life he 
finds most full of fierce certainties and battles be- 
tween good and ill — his own. Oh, yes, the life 
we do not care about may easily be a psychological 



comedy. Other people's lives may easily be hu- 
man documents. But a man's own life is always 
a melodrama." 

There are other effective things in " David 
Copperfield; " they are not all autobiographical, 
but they nearly all have this new note of quietude 
and reality. Micawber is gigantic; an immense 
assertion of the truth that the way to live is to 
exaggerate everything. But of him I shall have to 
speak more fully in another connection. Mrs. 
Micawber, artistically speaking, is even better. 
She is very nearly the best thing in Dickens. Noth- 
ing could be more absurd, and at the same time 
more true, than her clear, argumentative manner 
of speech as she sits smiling and expounding in the 
midst of ruin. What could be more lucid and logi- 
cal and unanswerable than her statement of the 
prolegomena of the Medway problem, of which 
the first step must be to " see the Medway," or 
of the coal-trade, which required talent and capital. 
" Talent Mr. Micawber has. Capital Mr. Mi- 
cav/ber has not." It seems as if something should 
have come at last out of so clear and scientific an 
arrangement of ideas. Indeed if (as has been 
suggested) we regard " David Copperfield " as 
an unconscious defence of the poetic view of life, 
we might regard Mrs. Micawber as an unconscious 



satire on the logical view of life. She sits as a 
monument of the hopelessness and helplessness of 
reason In the face of this romantic and unreason- 
able world. 

As I have taken " Dombey and Son " as the 
book before the transition, and " David Copper- 
field " as typical of the transition Itself, . I may 
perhaps take " Bleak House " as the book after 
the transition. " Bleak House " has every char- 
acteristic of his new realistic culture. Dickens 
never, as in his early books, revels now in the 
parts he likes and scamps the parts he does not, 
after the manner of Scott. He does not, as in 
previous tales, leave his heroes and heroines mere 
walking gentlemen and ladles with nothing at all 
to do but walk: he expends upon them at least 
ingenuity. By the expedients (successful or not) 
of the self-revelation of Esther or the humorous 
Inconsistencies of Rick, he makes his younger fig- 
ures if not lovable at least readable. Everywhere 
we see this tighter and more careful grip. He 
does not, for Instance, when he wishes to denounce 
a dark institution, sandwich it In as a mere episode 
In a rambling story of adventure, as the debtor's 
prison Is embedded in the body of Pickwick or the 
low Yorkshire school In the body of Nicholas 
NIckleby. He puts the Court of Chancery In the 



centre of the stage, a sombre and sinister temple, 
and groups round it in artistic relation decaying 
and fantastic figures, its offspring and its satirists. 
An old dipsomaniac keeps a rag and bone shop, 
type of futility and antiquity, and calls himself 
the Lord Chancellor. A little mad old maid hangs 
about the courts on a forgotten or imaginary law- 
/suit, and says with perfect and pungent irony, 
/" I am expecting a judgment shortly, on the Day 
of Judgment." Rick and Ada and Esther are not 
mere strollers who have strayed into the court of 
law, they are its children, its symbols, and its vic- 
tims. The righteous indignation of the book is 
not at the red heat of anarchy, but at the white 
heat of art. Its anger is patient and plodding, like 
some historic revenge. Moreover, it slowly and 
carefully creates the real psychology of oppression. 
The endless formality, the endless unemotional ur- 
banity, the endless hope deferred, these things 
make one feel the fact of injustice more than the 
madness of Nero. For it is not the activeness of 
tyranny that maddens, but its passiveness. We 
hate the deafness of the god more than his 
strength. Silence is the unbearable repartee. 

Again we can see in this book strong traces of 
an increase in social experience. Dickens, as his 
fame carried him into more fashionable circles, 



began really to understand something of what is 
strong and what is weak in the English upper 
class. Sir Leicester Deadlock is a far more effec- 
tive condemnation of oligarchy than the ugly 
swagger of Sir Mulberry Hawke, because pride 
stands out more plainly in all its impotence and 
insolence as the one weakness of a good man, than 
as one of the million weaknesses of a bad one. 
Dickens, like all young Radicals, had imagined In 
his youth that aristocracy rested upon the hardness 
of somebody; he found, as we all do, that it rests 
upon the softness of everybody. It Is very hard 
not to like Sir Leicester Deadlock, not to applaud 
his silly old speeches, so foolish, so manly, so 
genuinely English, so disastrous to England. It 
is true that the English people love a lord, but 
it is not true that they fear him; rather, if any- 
thing, they pity him; there creeps Into their love 
something of the feeling they have towards a baby 
or a black man. In their hearts they think It 
admirable that Sir Leicester Deadlock should be 
able to speak at all. And so a system, which no 
Iron laws and no bloody battles could possibly force 
upon a people, is preserved from generation to 
generation by pure, weak good-nature. 

In " Bleak House " occurs the character of Har- 
old Skimpole, the character whose alleged likeness 



to Leigh Hunt has laid Dickens open to so much 
disapproval Unjust disapproval, I think, as far 
as fundamental morals are concerned. In method 
he was a little clamorous and clumsy, as, indeed, 
he was apt to be. But when he said that it was 
possible to combine a certain tone of conversation 
taken from a particular man with other character- 
istics which were not meant to be his, he surely 
said what all men who write stories know. A 
work of fiction often consists in combining a pair 
of whiskers seen in one street with a crime seen 
in another. He may quite possibly have really 
meant only to make Leigh Hunt's light philosophy 
the mask for a new kind of scamp, as a variant on 
the pious mask of Pecksniff or the candid mask 
of Bagstock. He may never once have had the 
unfriendly thought, " Suppose Hunt behaved 
like a rascal ! " he may have only had the 
fanciful thought, " Suppose a rascal behaved like 

But there is a good reason for mentioning Skim- 
pole especially. In the character of Skimpole, 
Dickens displayed again a quality that was very 
admirable in him — I mean a disposition to see 
things sanely and to satirize even his own faults. 
He was commonly occupied in satirizing the Grad- 
grlnds, the economists, the men of Smiles and Self- 



Help. For him there was nothing poorer than 
their wealth, nothing more selfish than their self- 
denial. And against them he was in the habit of 
pitting the people of a more expansive habit — the 
happy Swivellers and Micawbers, who, if they 
were poor, were at least as rich as their last penny 
could make them. He loved that great Christian 
carelessness that seeks its meat from God. It was 
merely a kind of uncontrollable honesty that forced 
him into urging the other side. He could not dis- 
guise from himself or from the world that the 
man who began by seeking his meat from God 
might end by seeking his meat from his neigh- 
bour, without apprising his neighbour of the 
fact. He had shown how good irresponsibility 
could be; he could not stoop to hide how bad it 
could be. He created Skimpole; and Skimpole is 
the dark underside of Micawber. 

In attempting Skimpole he attempted something 
with a great and urgent meaning. He attempted 
it, I say; I do not assert that he carried it through. 
As has been remarked, he was never successful in 
describing psychological change ; his characters are 
the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. And 
critics have complained very justly of the crude 
villainy of Skimpole^s action in the matter of Joe 
and Mr. Bucket. Certainly Skimpole had no need 



to commit a clumsy treachery to win a ciumsy 
bribe; he had only to call on Mr. Jarndyce. He 
had lost his honour too long to need to sell It. 

The effect Is bad; but I repeat that the aim was 
great. Dickens wished, under the symbol of Sklm- 
pole, to point out a truth which Is perhaps the most 
terrible In moral psychology. I mean the fact that 
It Is by no means easy to draw the line between 
light and heavy offence. He desired to show that 
there are no faults, however kindly, that we can 
afford to flatter or to let alone; he meant that 
perhaps Sklmpole had once been as good a man as 
Swiveller. If flattered or let alone, our kindliest 
fault can destroy our kindliest virtue. A thing 
may begin as a very human weakness, and end as 
a very Inhuman weakness. Sklmpole means that 
the extremes of evil are much nearer than we think. 
A man may begin by being too generous to pay his 
debts, and end by being too mean to pay his debts. 
For the vices are very strangely In league, and 
encourage each other. A sober man may become 
a drunkard through being a coward. A brave 
man may become a coward through being a drunk- 
ard. That Is the thing Dickens was darkly trying 
to convey In Sklmpole — that a man might become 
a mountain of selfishness If he attended only to the 
Dickens virtues. There Is nothing that can be 



neglected; there is no such thing (he meant) as a 

I have dwelt on this consciousness of his be- 
cause, alas, it had a very sharp edge for himself. 
Even while he was permitting a fault, originally 
small, to make a comedy of Skimpole, a fault, 
originally small, was making a tragedy of Charles 
Dickens. For Dickens also had a bad quality, not 
intrinsically very terrible, which he allowed to 
wreck his life. He also had a small weakness that 
could sometimes become stronger than all his 
strengths. Flis selfishness was not, it need hardly 
be said, the selfishness of Gradgrind; he was par- 
ticularly compassionate and liberal. Nor was it 
in the least the selfishness of Skimpole. He was 
entirely self-dependent, industrious, and dignified. 
His selfishness was wholly a selfishness of the 
nerves. Whatever his whim or the temperature 
of the instant told him to do, must be done. He 
was the type of man who would break a vvindow if 
it would not open and give him air. And this 
weakness of his had, by the time of which we 
speak, led to a breach b'etween himself and his wife 
which he was too exasperated and excited to heal 
in time. Everything must be put right, and put 
right at once, with him. If London bored him, he 
must go to the Continent at once; if the Continent 



bored him, he must come back to London at once. 
If the day was too noisy, the whole household 
must be quiet; if night was too quiet, the whole 
household must wake up. Above all, he had this 
supremie character of the domestic despot — that 
his good temper was, if possible, more despotic 
than his bad temper. When he was miserable 
(as he often was, poor fellow), they only had 
to listen to his railings. When he was happy they 
had to listen to his novels. All this, which was 
mainly mere excitability, did not seem to amount 
to much; it did not in the least mean that he had 
ceased to be a clean-living and kind-hearted and 
quite honest man. But there was this evil about it 
— that he did not resist his little weakness at all; 
he pampered it as Skimpole pampered his. And 
it separated him and his wife. A mere silly trick 
of temperament did everything that the blackest 
misconduct could have done. A random sensi- 
bility, started about the shufHing of papers or the 
shutting of a window, ended by tearing two clean, 
Christian people from each other, like a blast of 
bigamy or adultery. 



I HAVE deliberately In this book mentioned only 
such facts In the life of Dickens as were, I will 
not say significant (for all facts must be signifi- 
cant, Including the million facts that can never 
be mentioned by anybody), but such facts as Illus- 
trated my own immediate meaning. I have ob- 
served this method consistently and without shame 
because I think that we can hardly make too evi- 
dent a chasm between books which profess to be 
statements of all ascertainable facts, and books 
which (like this one) profess only to contain a 
particular opinion or a summary deduclble from 
the facts. Books like Forster's exhaustive work 
and others exist, and are as accessible as St. Paul's 
Cathedral; we have them In common as we have 
the facts of the physical universe; and it seems 
highly desirable that the function of making an 
exhaustive catalogue and that of making an indi- 
vidual generalization should not be confused. No 
catalogue, of course, can contain all the facts even 
of five minutes ; every catalogue, however long and 



learned, must be not only a bold, but, one may 
say, an audacious selection. But if a great many 
facts are given, the reader gains a blurred belief 
that all the facts are being given. In a professedly 
personal judgment it is therefore clearer and 
more honest to give only a few illustrative facts, 
leaving the other obtainable facts to balance them. 
For thus it is made quite clear that the thing is a 
sketch, an affair of a few lines. 

It Is as well, however, to make at this point a 
pause sufficient to indicate the main course of 
the later life of the novelist. And it is best to 
begin with the man himself, as he appeared in 
those last days of popularity and public distinction. 
Many are still alive who remember him in his 
after-dinner speeches, his lectures, and his many 
public activities; as I am not one of these, I cannot 
correct my notions with that flash of the living 
features without which a description may be subtly 
and entirely wrong. Once a man is dead, if it be 
only yesterday, the newcomer must piece him to- 
gether from descriptions really as much at random 
as if he were describing Caesar or Henry II. Al- 
lowing, however, for this Inevitable falsity, a figure 
vivid and a little fantastic, does walk across the 
stage of Forster*s " Life." 

Dickens was of a middle size and his vivacity 



and relative physical Insignificance probably gave 
rather the impression of small size; certainly of 
the absence of bulk. In early life he wore, even 
for that epoch, extravagant clusters of brown hair, 
and in later years, a brown moustache and a fringe 
of brown beard (cut like a sort of broad and bushy 
imperial) sufficiently individual in shape to give 
him a faint air as of a foreigner. His face had a 
peculiar tint or quality which is hard to describe 
even after one has contrived to imagine it. It 
was the quality which Mrs. Carlyle felt to be, as 
It were, metallic, and compared to clear steel. It 
was, I think, a sort of pale glitter and animation, 
very much alive and yet with something deathly 
about It, like a corpse galvanized by a god. His 
face (if this was so) was curiously a counterpart 
of his character. For the essence of Dickens's 
character was that It was at once tremulous and yet 
hard and sharp, just as the bright blade of a sword 
Is tremulous and yet hard and sharp. He vibrated 
at every touch and yet he was Indestructible; you 
could bend him, but you could not break him. 
Brown of hair and beard, somewhat pale of visage 
(especially In his later days of excitement and Ill- 
health) he had quite exceptionally bright and 
active eyes; eyes that were always darting about 
like brilliant birds to pick up all the tiny things of 



which he made more, perhaps, than any novelist 
has done; for he was a sort of poetical Sherlock 
Holmes. The mouth behind the brown beard was 
large and mobile, like the mouth of an actor; in- 
deed he was an actor, In many things too much of 
an actor. In his lectures, In later years, he could 
turn his strange face Into any of the Innumerable 
mad masks that were the faces of his grotesque 
characters. He could make his face fall suddenly 
Into the blank Inanity of Mrs. Raddle's servant, or 
swell, as If to twice Its size, Into the apoplectic 
energy of Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz. But the outline 
of his face Itself, from his youth upwards, was cut 
quite delicate and decisive, and In repose and Its 
own keen way, may even have looked effeminate. 
The dress of the comfortable classes during the 
later years of Dickens was, compared with ours, 
somewhat slipshod and somewhat gaudy. It was 
the time of loose pegtop trousers of an almost 
Turkish oddity, of large ties, of loose short jackets 
and of loose long whiskers. Yet even this expan- 
sive period. It must be confessed, considered Dick- 
ens a little too flashy or, as some put It, too Frenchi- 
fied In his dress. He wore velvet coats; he wore 
wild waistcoats that were like incredible sunsets; 
he wore large hats of an unnecessary and startling 
whiteness. He did not mind being seen in sensa- 



tlonal dressing-gowns; nay, he had his portrait 
painted In one of them. All this is not meritorious ; 
neither is it particularly' discreditable ; It Is a char- 
acteristic only, but an important one. He was an 
absolutely independent and entirely self-respecting 
man. But he had none of that old dusty, half- 
dignified English feeling upon which Thackeray 
was so sensitive; I mean the desire to be regarded 
as a private gentleman, w^hich means at bottom the 
desire to be left alone. This again is not a merit; 
it Is only one of the milder aspects of aristocracy. 
But meritorious or not, Dickens did not possess It. 
He had no objection to being stared at, if he were 
also admired. He did not exactly pose in the 
oriental manner of Disraeli; his Instincts were too 
clean for that; but he did pose somewhat in the 
French manner, of some leaders like MIrabeau and 
Gambetta. Nor had he the dull desire to " get 
on " which makes men die contented as Inarticu- 
late Under Secretaries of State. He did not de- 
sire success so much as fame, the old human glory, 
the applause and wonder of the people. Such he 
was as he walked down the street in his white hat, 
probably with a slight swagger. 

His private life consisted of one tragedy and ten 
thousand comedies. By one tragedy I mean one 
real and rending moral tragedy — the failure of his 



marriage. He loved his children dearly, and more 
than one of them died; but in sorrows like these 
there is no violence and above all no shame. The 
end of life is not tragic like the end of love. And 
by the ten thousand comedies I mean the whole 
texture of his life, his letters, his conversation, 
which were one incessant carnival of insane and 
inspired improvisation. So far as he could prevent 
it, he never permitted a day of his life to be or- 
dinary. There was always some prank, some im- 
petuous proposal, some practical joke, some sud- 
den hospitality, some sudden disappearance. It is 
related of him (I give one anecdote out of a hun- 
dred) that in his last visit to America, when he 
was already reeling as it were under the blow that 
was to be mortal, he remarked quite casually to 
his companions that a row of painted cottages 
looked exactly like the painted shops in a panto- 
mime. No sooner had the suggestion passed his 
lips than he leapt at the nearest doorway and in 
exact imitation of the clown In the harlequinade, 
beat conscientiously with his fist, not on the door 
(for that would have burst the canvas scenery of 
course), but on the side of the doorpost. Hav- 
ing done this he lay down ceremoniously across 
the doorstep for the owner to fall over him if he 
should come rushing out. He then got up gravely 



and went on his way. His whole hfe was full of 
such unexpected energies, precisely like those of 
the pantomime clown. Dickens had indeed a great 
and fundamental affinity with the landscape, or 
rather house-scape, of the harlequinade. He liked 
high houses, and sloping roofs, and deep areas. 
But he would have been really happy if some good 
fairy of the eternal pantomime had given him the 
power of flying off the roofs and pitching harm- 
lessly down the height of the houses and bounding 
out of the areas like an indiarubber ball. The 
divine lunatic in " Nicholas Nickleby " comes near- 
est to his dream. I really think Dickens would 
rather have been that one of his characters than 
any of the others. With what excitement he would 
have struggled down the chimney. With what 
ecstatic energy he would have hurled the cucum- 
bers over the garden wall. 

His letters exhibit even more the same incessant 
creative force. His letters are as creative as any 
of his literary creations. His shortest postcard Is 
often as good as his ablest novel ; each one of them 
is spontaneous ; each one of them is different. He 
varies even the form and shape of the letter as far 
as possible; now It Is In absurd French! now it Is 
from one of his characters; now It Is an advertise- 
ment for himself as a stray dog. All of them are 



very funny ; they are not only very funny, but they 
are quite as funny as his finished and pubhshed 
work. This is the ultimately amazing thing about 
Dickens; the amount there is of him. He wrote, 
at the very least, sixteen thick important books 
packed full of original creation. And if you 
had burnt them all he could have written six- 
teen more, as a man writes idle letters to his 

In connection with this exuberant part of his 
nature there is another thing to be noted, if we are 
to make a personal picture of him. Many modern 
people, chiefly women, have been .heard to object 
to the Bacchic element in the books of Dickens, 
that celebration of social drinking as a supreme 
symbol of social living, which those books share 
with almost all the great literature of mankind, 
including the New Testament. Undoubtedly there 
is an abnormal amount of drinking in a page of 
Dickens, as there is an abnormal amount of fight- 
ing, say, in a page of Dumas. If you reckon up 
the beers and brandies of Mr. Bob Sawyer, with 
the care of an arithmetician and the deductions of 
a pathologist, they rise alarmingly, like a rising 
tide at sea. Dickens did defend drink clamo- 
rously, praised it with passion, and described whole 
orgies of it with enormous gusto. Yet it Is won- 



derfully typical of his prompt and Impatient nature 
that he himself drank comparatively little. He 
was the type of man who could be so eager In 
praising the cup that he left the cup untasted. It 
was a part of his active and feverish temperament 
that he did not drink wine very much. But It 
was a part of his humane philosophy, of his 
religion, that he did drink wine. To healthy 
European philosophy, wine is a symbol; to 
European religion It Is a sacrament. Dickens 
approved it because It was a great human institu- 
tion, one of the rites of civilization, and this It 
certainly is. The teetotaller who stands outside 
it may have perfectly clear ethical reasons of his 
own, as a man may have who stands outside educa- 
tion or nationality, who refuses to go to an Uni- 
versity or to serve In an Army. But he Is neglect- 
ing one of the great social things that man has 
added to nature. The teetotaller has chosen a 
most unfortunate phrase for the drunkard when 
he says that the drunkard is making a beast of 
himself. The man who drinks ordinarily makes 
nothing but an ordinary man of himself. The 
man who drinks excessively makes a devil of him- 
self. But nothing connected with a human and 
artistic thing like wine can bring one nearer to 
the brute life of nature. The only man who Is, In 



the exact and literal sense of the words, making 
a beast of himself Is the teetotaller. 

The tone of Dickens towards religion, though 
like that of most of his contemporaries, philo- 
sophically disturbed and rather historically Igno- 
rant, had an element that was very characteristic 
of himself. He had all the prejudices of his time. 
He had, for Instance, that dislike of defined dog- 
mas, which really means a preference for unex- 
amined dogmas. He had the usual vague notion 
that the whole of our human past was packed with 
nothing but Insane Tories. He had. In a word, 
all the old Radical Ignorances which went along 
with the old Radical acuteness and courage and 
public spirit. But this spirit tended. In almost all 
the others who held It, to a specific dislike of the 
Church of England; and a disposition to set the 
other sects against It, as truer types of Inquiry, or 
of Individualism. Dickens had a definite tender- 
ness for the Church of England. He might have 
even called It a weakness for the Church of Eng- 
land, but he had It. Something In those placid 
services, something In that reticent and humane 
liturgy pleased him against all the tendencies of 
his time; pleased him In the best part of himself, 
his virile love of charity and peace. Once, In a 
puff of anger at the Church's political stupidity 



(which Is Indeed profound), he left It for a week 
or two and went to an Unitarian Chapel ; In a 
week or two he came back. This curious and 
sentimental hold of the English Church upon him 
increased with years. In the book he was at 
work on when he died he describes the Minor 
Canon, humble, chivalrous, tender-hearted, answer- 
ing with indignant simplicity the froth and plat- 
form righteousness of the sectarian philanthropist. 
He upholds Canon Crisparkle and satirizes Mr. 
Honeythunder. Almost every one of the other 
Radicals, his friends, would have upheld Mr. 
Honeythunder and satirized Canon Crisparkle. 

I have mentioned this matter for a special rea- 
son. It brings us back to that apparent contra- 
diction or dualism In Dickens to which, In one 
connection or another, I have often adverted, and 
which. In one shape or another, constitutes the 
whole crux of his character. I mean the union of 
a general wlldness approaching lunacy, with a sort 
of secret moderation almost amounting to medioc- 
rity. Dickens was, more or less, the man I have 
described — sensitive, theatrical, amazing, a bit of 
a dandy, a bit of a buffoon. Nor are such charac- 
teristics, whether weak or wild, entirely accidents 
or externals. He had some false theatrical ten- 
dencies Integral In his nature. For Instance, he 



had one most unfortunate habit, a habit that often 
put him in the wrong, even when he happened to 
be in the right. He had an incurable habit of ex- 
plaining himself. This reduced his admirers to 
the mental condition of the authentic but hitherto 
uncelebrated little girl who said to her mother, " I 
think I should understand if only you wouldn't 
explain." Dickens always would explain. It was 
a part of that instinctive publicity of his which 
made him at once a splendid democrat and a little 
too much of an actor. He carried it to the craziest 
lengths. He actually wanted to have printed in 
Punch, it is said, an apology for his own action in 
the matter of his marriage. That incident alone 
is enough to suggest that his external offers and 
proposals were sometimes like screams heard from 
Bedlam. Yet it remains true that he had in him a 
central part that was pleased only by the most 
decent and the most reposeful rites, by things of 
w^hich the Anglican prayer-book is very typical. 
It is certainly true that he was often extravagant. 
It is most certainly equally true that he detested 
and despised extravagance. 

The best explanation can be found in his literary 
genius. His literary genius consisted in a contra- 
dictory capacity at once to entertain and to deride 
— very ridiculous ideas. If he is a buffoon, he is 

22 2 


laughing at buffoonery. His books were In some 
ways the wildest on the face of the world. Rabe- 
lais did not Introduce Into Paphlagonia or the 
Kingdom of the Coqclgrues satiric figures more 
frantic and misshapen than Dickens made to walk 
about the Strand and Lincoln's Lin. But for all 
that, you come, In the core of him, on a sudden 
quietude and good sense. Such, I think, was the 
core of Rabelais, such were all the far-stretching 
and violent satirists. This Is a point essential to 
Dickens, though very little comprehended In our 
current tone of thought. Dickens was an Immod- 
erate jester, but a moderate thinker. He was an 
immoderate jester because he was a moderate 
thinker. What we moderns call the wlldness of 
his Imagination was actually created by what we 
moderns call the tameness of his thought. I mean 
that he felt the full Insanity of all extreme ten- 
dencies, because he was himself so sane; he felt 
eccentricities, because he was In the centre. We 
are always. In these days, asking our violent 
prophets to write violent satires; but violent 
prophets can never possibly write violent satires. 
In order to write satire like that of Rabelais — satire 
that juggles with the stars and kicks the world 
about like a football — It Is necessary to be one's 
self temperate, and even mild. A modern man 



like Nietzsche, a modern man like Gorky, a mod- 
ern man like d'Annunzio, could not possibly write 
real and riotous satire. They are themselves too 
much on the borderlands. They could not be a 
success as caricaturists, for they are already a great 
success as caricatures. 

I have mentioned his religious preference merely 
as an instance of this Interior moderation. To 
say, as some have done, that he attacked Non- 
conformity Is quite a false way of putting it. It 
is clean across the whole trend of the man and 
his time to suppose that he could have felt bitter- 
ness against any theological body as a theological 
body; but anything like religious extravagance, 
whether Protestant or Catholic, moved him to an 
extravagance of satire. And he flung himself into 
the drunken energy of Stiggins, he piled up to the 
stars the " verbose flights of stairs " of Mr. Chad- 
band, exactly because his own conception of reli- 
gion was the quiet and Impersonal Morning 
Prayer. It is typical of him that he had a peculiar 
hatred for speeches at the graveside. 

An even clearer case of what I mean can be 
found In his political attitude. He seemed to some 
an almost anarchic satirist. He made equal fun 
of the systems which reformers made war on, and 
of the instruments on which reformers relied. He 



made no secret of his feeling that the average 
EngHsh premier was an accidental ass. In two 
superb sentences he summed up and swept away 
the whole British constitution; " England, for the 
last week, been in an awful state. Lord Coodle 
would go out. Sir Thomas Doodle wouldn't come 
in, and there being no people in England to speak 
of except Coodle and Doodle, the country has been 
without a government." He lumped all cabinets 
and all government offices together, and made the 
same game of them all. He created his most stag- 
gering humbugs, his most adorable and incredible 
idiots, and set them on the highest thrones of our 
national system. To many moderate and progres- 
sive people, such a satirist seemed to be insulting 
heaven and earth, ready to wreck society for some 
miad alternative, prepared to pull down St. Paul's, 
and on its ruins erect a gory guillotine. Yet, as 
a matter of fact, this apparent wildness of his came 
from his being, if anything, a very moderate poli- 
tician. It came, not at all from fanaticism, but 
from a rather rational detachment. He had the 
sense to see that the British constitution was not 
democracy, but the British constitution. It was 
an artificial system — like any other, good In some 
ways, bad in others. His satire of It sounded wild 
to those that worshipped it; but his satire of It 



arose not from his having any wild enthusiasm 
against It, but simply from his not having, like 
every one else, a wild enthusiasm for It. Alone, as 
far as I know, among all the great Englishmen of 
that age, he reahzed the thing that Frenchmen and 
Irishmen understand. I mean the fact that popu- 
lar government Is one thing, and representative 
government another. He realized that representa- 
tive government has many minor disadvantages, 
one of them being that It Is never representa- 
tive. He speaks of his " hope to have made every 
man In England feel something of the contempt 
for the House of Commons that I have.*' He 
says also these two things, both of which are won- 
derfully penetrating as coming from a good Radi- 
cal In 1855, for they contain a perfect statement 
of the peril In which we now stand, and which may, 
If It please God, sting us Into avoiding the long 
vista at the end of which one sees so clearly the 
dignity and the decay of Venice — 

*' I am hourly strengthened," he says, '' in my 
old belief, that our political aristocracy and our 
tuft-hunting are the death of England. In all 
this business I don't see a gleam of hope. As to 
the popular spirit, it has come to be so entirely 
separated from the Parliament and the Govern- 
ment, and so perfectly apathetic about them both, 



that I seriously think It a most portentous sign." 
And he says also this: "I really am serious in 
thinking — and I have given as painful considera- 
tion to the subject as a man with children to live 
and suffer after him can possibly give it — that 
representative government is become altogether a 
failure with us, that the English gentilities and 
subserviences render the people unfit for it, and the 
whole thing has broken down since the great sev- 
enteenth century time, and has no hope in it." 

These are the words of a wise and perhaps 
melancholy man, but certainly not of an unduly 
excited one. It is worth noting, for instance, how 
much more directly Dickens goes to the point than 
Carlyle did, who noted many of the same evils. 
But Carlyle fancied that our modern English gov- 
ernment was wordy and long-winded because it 
was democratic government. Dickens saw, what 
is certainly the fact, that it Is wordy and long- 
winded because It Is aristocratic government, the 
two most pleasant aristocratic qualities being a love 
of literature and an unconsciousness of time. But 
all this amounts to the same conclusion of the 
matter. Frantic figures like Stiggins and Chad- 
band were created out of the quietude of his 
religious preference. Wild creations like the Bar- 
nacles and the Bounderbys were produced in a kind 



of ecstasy of the ordinary, of the obvious In 
political justice. His monsters were made out of 
his level and his moderation, as the old monsters 
were made out of the level sea. 

Such was the man of genius we must try to Imag- 
ine; violently emotional, yet with a good judg- 
ment; pugnacious, but only when he thought him- 
self oppressed; prone to think himself oppressed, 
yet not cynical about human motives. He was a 
man remarkably hard to understand or to reani- 
mate. He almost always had reasons for his 
action; his error was that he always expounded 
them. Sometimes his nerve snapped; and then he 
was mad. Unless It did so he was quite unusually 

Such a rough sketch at least must suffice us In 
order to summarize his later years. Those years 
were occupied, of course. In two main additions to 
his previous activities. The first was the series of 
public readings and lectures which he now began 
to give systematically. The second was his suc- 
cessive editorship of Household Words and of All 
the Year Round. He was of a type that enjoys 
every new function and opportunity. He had been 
so many things In his life, a reporter, an actor, a 
conjurer, a poet. As he had enjoyed them all, so 
he enjoyed being a lecturer, and enjoyed being an 



editor. It Is certain that his audiences (who some- 
times stacked themselves so thick that they lay 
flat on the platform all round him) enjoyed his 
being a lecturer. It Is not so certain that the sub- 
editors enjoyed his being an editor. But In both 
connections the main matter of Importance Is the 
effect on the permanent work of Dickens himself. 
The readings were Important for this reason, that 
they fixed, as If by some public and pontifical pro- 
nouncement, what was Dickens's Interpretation of 
Dickens's work. Such a knowledge Is mere tradi- 
tion, but It Is very forcible. My own family has 
handed on to me, and I shall probably hand on 
to the next generation, a definite memory of how 
Dickens made his face suddenly like the face of 
an Idiot In Impersonating Mrs. Raddle's servant, 
Betsy. This does serve one of the permanent pur- 
poses of tradition; It does make It a little more 
difficult for any Ingenious person to prove that 
Betsy was meant to be a brilliant satire on the 
over-cultivation of the Intellect. 

As for his relation to his two magazines. It Is 
chiefly important, first for the admirable things 
that he wrote In the magazines himself (one can- 
not forbear to mention the Inimitable monologue 
of the waiter In "Somebody's Luggage"), and 
secondly for the fact that In his capacity of editor 



he made one valuable discovery. He discovered 
Wllkie Collins. Wllkie Collins was the one man 
of unmistakable genius who has a certain affinity 
with Dickens; an affinity In this respect, that they 
both combine in a curious way a modern and cock- 
ney and even commonplace opinion about things 
with a huge elemental sympathy with strange ora- 
cles and spirits and old night.^ There were no two 
men In Mid- Victor I an England, with their top-hats 
and umbrellas, more typical of Its rationality and 
dull reform ; and there were no two men who could 
touch them at a ghost story. No two men would 
have more contempt for superstitions; and no two 
men could so create the superstitious thrill. In- 
deed, our modern mystics make a mistake when 
they wear long hair or loose ties to attract the 
spirits. The elves and the old gods when they 
revisit the earth really go straight for a dull top- 
hat. For It means simplicity, which the gods love. 
Meanwhile his books, which, as brilliant as ever, 
were appearing from time to time, bore witness to 
that increasing tendency to a more careful and 
responsible treatment which we have marked In 
the transition which culminated In " Bleak House." 
His next important book, " Hard Times," strikes 
an almost unexpected note of severity. The char- 
acters are Indeed exaggerated, but they are bitterly 



and deliberately exaggerated; they are not exag- 
gerated with the old unconscious high spirits of 
Nicholas Nictleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. Dick- 
ens exaggerates Bounderby because he really hates 
him. He exaggerated Pecksniff because he really 
loved him. " Hard Times " is not one of the 
greatest books of Dickens; but it is perhaps in a 
sense one of his greatest monuments. It stamps 
and records the reality of Dickens's emotion on a 
great many things that were then considered un- 
phllosophical grumblings, but which since have 
swelled Into the immense phenomenon of the so- 
cialist philosophy. To call Dickens a Socialist is a 
wild exaggeration; but the truth and peculiarity 
of his position might be expressed thus : that even 
when everybody thought that Liberalism meant 
Individualism he was emphatically a Liberal and 
emphatically not an Individualist. Or the truth 
might be better still stated in this manner: that 
he saw that there was a secret thing, called human- 
ity, to which both extreme socialism and extreme 
Individualism were profoundly and Inexpressibly 
indifferent, and that this permanent and presiding 
humanity was the thing he happened to under- 
stand; he knew that Individualism Is nothing and 
non-lndlvldualism is nothing but the keeping of the 
commandment of man. He felt, as a novelist 



should, that the question is too much discussed as 
to whether a man Is In favour of this or that scien- 
tific philosophy; that there Is another question, 
whether the scientific philosophy Is In favour of 
the man. That Is why such books as " Hard 
Times " will remain always a part of the power 
and tradition of Dickens. He saw that economic 
systems are not things like the stars, but things 
like the lamp-posts, manifestations of the human 
mind, and things to be judged by the human 

Thenceforward until the end his books grow 
consistently graver and, as It were, more responsi- 
ble; he Improves as an artist If not always as a 
creator. "Little Dorrit '* (published In 1857) 
Is at once In some ways so much more subtle and 
in every way so much more sad than the rest of 
his work that It bores DIckensIans and especially 
pleases George GIssIng. It Is the only one of the 
Dickens tales which could please GIssIng, not only 
by Its genius, but also by Its atmosphere. There Is 
something a little modern and a little sad, some- 
thing also out of tune with the main trend of 
Dickens's moral feeling, about the description of 
the character of Dorrit as actually and finally 
weakened by his wasting experiences, as not lifting 
any cry above the conquered years. It Is but a 



faint fleck of shadow. But the illimitable white 
light of human hopefulness, of which I spoke at 
the beginning, is ebbing away, the work of the 
revolution is growing weaker everywhere; and 
the night of necessitarianism cometh when no man 
can work. For the first time In a book by Dickens 
perhaps we really do feel that the hero is forty- 
five. Clennam Is certainly very much older than 
Mr. Pickwick. 

This was indeed only a fugitive grey cloud; 
he went on to breezier operations. But whatever 
they were, they still had the note of the later days. 
They have a more cautious craftsmanship; they 
have a more mellow and a more mixed human 
sentiment. Shadows fell upon his page from the 
other and sadder figures out of the Victorian de- 
cline. A good Instance of this is his next book, 
" The Tale of Two Cities " ( 1859) . In dignity 
and eloquence It almost stands alone among the 
books by Dickens, but It also stands alone among 
his books In this respect, that It is not entirely by 
Dickens. It owes Its Inspiration avowedly to the 
passionate and cloudy pages of Carlyle^s " French 
Revolution." And there Is something quite essen- 
tially inconsistent between Carlyle's disturbed and 
half-sceptical transcendentalism and the original 
school and spirit to which Dickens belonged, the 



lucid and laughing decisiveness of the old con- 
vinced and contented Radicalism. Hence the 
genius of Dickens cannot save him, just as the 
great genius of Carlyle could not save him from 
making a picture of the French Revolution, which 
was delicately and yet deeply erroneous. Both 
tend too much to represent it as a mere elemental 
outbreak of hunger or vengeance ; they do not see 
enough that it was a war for intellectual princi- 
ples, even for Intellectual platitudes. We, the 
modern English, cannot easily understand the 
French Revolution, because we cannot easily un- 
derstand the idea of bloody battle for pure com- 
mon sense; we cannot understand common sense 
in arms and conquering. In modern England com- 
mon sense appears to mean putting up with exist- 
ing conditions. For us a practical politician really 
means a man who can be thoroughly trusted to do 
nothing at all ; that Is where his practicality comes 
in. The French feeling — the feeling at the back 
of the Revolution — was that the more sensible a 
man was, the more you must look out for 

In all the imitators of Carlyle, Including Dick- 
ens, there is an obscure sentiment that the thing 
for which the Frenchmen died must have been 
something new and queer, a paradox, a strange 
idolatry. But when such blood ran In the streets, 



It was for the sake of a truism; when those cities 
were shaken to their foundations, they were shaken 
to their foundations by a truism. 

I have mentioned this historical matter because 
It Illustrates these later and more mingled Influ- 
ences which at once Improve and as It were perplex 
the later work of Dickens. For Dickens had In 
his original mental composition capacities for 
understanding this cheery and sensible element 
In the French Revolution far better than Carlyle. 
The French Revolution was, among other things, 
French, and, so far as that goes, could never have 
a precise counterpart In so jolly and autochthonous 
an Englishman as Charles Dickens. But there was 
a great deal of the actual and unbroken tradition 
of the Revolution Itself In his early radical Indict- 
ments; In his denunciations of the Fleet Prison 
there was a great deal of the capture of the Bas- 
tille. There was, above all, a certain reasonable 
Impatience which was the essence of the old Repub- 
lican, and which Is quite unknown to the Revolu- 
tionist In modern Europe. The old Radical did 
not feel exactly that he was " in revolt; " he felt 
If anything that a number of idiotic Institutions 
had revolted against reason and against him. 
Dickens, I say, had the revolutionary idea, though 
an English form of it, by clear and conscious in- 
heritance; Carlyle had to rediscover the Revolu- 



tlon by a violence of genius and vision. If Dick- 
ens, then, took from Carlyle (as he said he did) 
his image of the Revolution, it does certainly mean 
that he had forgotten something of his own youth 
and come under the more complex influences of 
the end of the nineteenth century. His old hilari- 
ous and sentimental view of human nature seems 
for a moment dimmed in " Little Dorrit." His 
old political simplicity has been slightly disturbed 
by Carlyle. 

I repeat that this graver note is varied, but It 
remains a graver note. We see It struck, I think, 
with particular and remarkable success in " Great 
Expectations " (i 860-61). This fine story Is told 
with a consistency and quietude of individuality 
which Is rare In Dickens. But so far had he 
travelled along the road of a heavier reality, that 
he even Intended to give the tale an unhappy 
ending, making Pip lose Estella for ever; and he 
was only dissuaded from It by the robust romanti- 
cism of Bulwer-Lytton. But the best part of the 
tale — the account of the vacillations of the hero 
between the humble life to which he owes every- 
thing, and the gorgeous life from which he expects 
something, touch a very true and somewhat tragic 
part of morals; for the great paradox of morality 
(the paradox to which only the religions have 



given an adequate expression) Is that the very 
vilest kind of fault is exactly the most easy kind. 
We read In books and ballads about the wild fellow 
who might kill a man or smoke opium, but who 
would never stoop to lying or cowardice or to 
" anything mean." But for actual human beings 
opiumx and slaughter have only occasional charm; 
the permanent human temptation is the temptation 
to be mean. The one standing probability is the 
probability of becoming a cowardly hypocrite. 
The circle of the traitors Is the lowest of the 
abyss, and It Is also the easiest to fall Into. That 
Is one of the ringing realities of the Bible, that It 
does not make Its great men commit grand sins; 
It makes Its great men (such as David and 
St. Peter) commit small sins and behave like 

Dickens has dealt with this easy descent of 
desertion, this silent treason, with remarkable accu- 
racy in the account of the indecisions of Pip. 
It contains a good suggestion of that weak romance 
which is the root of all snobbishness: that the 
mystery which belongs to patrician life excites us 
more than the open, even the Indecent virtues of 
the humble. Pip Is keener about Miss Havlsham, 
who may mean well by him, than about Joe Gar- 
gery, who evidently does. All this is very strong 



and wholesome; but It is still a little stern. " Our 
Mutual Friend" (1864) brings us back a little 
into his merrier and more normal manner; some 
of the satire, such as that upon Veneering's elec- 
tion, is in the best of his old style, so airy and 
fanciful, yet hitting so suddenly and so hard. But 
even here we find the fuller and more serious treat- 
ment of psychology; notably in the two facts that 
he creates a really human villain, Bradley Head- 
stone, and also one whom we might call a really 
human hero, Eugene, if it were not that he is much 
too human to be called a hero at all. It has been 
said (invariably by cads) that Dickens never de- 
scribed a gentleman ; It Is like saying that he never 
described a zebra. A gentleman Is a very rare 
animal among human creatures, and to people 
like Dickens, interested In all humanity, not a 
supremely important one. But In Eugene Wray- 
burne he does, whether consciously or not, turn 
that accusation with a vengeance. For he not only 
describes a gentleman but describes the Inner weak- 
ness and peril that belong to a gentleman, the devil 
that Is always rending the entrails of an Idle and 
agreeable man. In Eugene's purposeless pursuit 
of Lizzie Hexam, In his yet more purposeless 
torturing of Bradley Headstone, the author has 
marvellously realized that singular empty obstl- 



nacy that drives the whims and pleasures of a 
leisured class. He sees that there is nothing that 
such a man more stubbornly adheres to, than the 
thing that he does not particularly want to do. 
We are still in serious psychology. 

His last book represents yet another new depar- 
ture, dividing him from the chaotic Dickens of 
days long before. His last book is not merely an 
attempt to improve his power of construction in 
a story: it is an attempt to rely entirely on that 
power of construction. It not only has a plot, it 
is a plot. '^ The Mystery of Edwin Drood " 
(1870) was in such a sense, perhaps, the most 
ambitious book that Dickens ever attempted. It 
is, as every one knows, a detective story, and cer- 
tainly a very successful one, as Is attested by the 
tumult of discussion as to its proper solution. In 
this, quite apart from its unfinished state, it stands, 
I think, alone among the author's works. Else- 
where, if he introduced a mystery, he seldom took 
the trouble to make It very mysterious. " Our 
Mutual Friend " was finished, but If only half 
of it were readable, I think any one could see that 
John Rokesmith was John Harman. ** Bleak 
House " is finished, but if it were only half fin- 
ished I think any one would guess that Lady Dead- 
lock and Nemo had sinned in the past. '' Edwin 



Drood " Is not finished; for In the very middle of 
it Dickens died. 

He had altogether overstrained himself In a 
last lecturing tour In America. He was a man in 
whom any serious malady would naturally make 
very rapid strides; for he had the temper of an 
Irrational invalid. I have said before that there 
was In his curious character something that was 
feminine. Certainly there was nothing more en- 
tirely feminine than this, that he worked because 
he was tired. Fatigue bred in him a false and 
feverish Industry, and his case Increased, like the 
case of a man who drinks to cure the effects of 
drink. He died in 1870; and the whole nation 
mourned him as no public man has ever been 
mourned; for prime ministers and princes were 
private persons compared with Dickens. He had 
been a great popular king, like a king of some 
more primal age whom his people could come and 
see, giving judgment under an oak tree. He had 
in essence held great audiences of millions, and 
made proclamations to more than one of the na- 
tions of the earth. His obvious omnipresence In 
every part of public life was like the omnipresence 
of the sovereign. His secret omnipresence in 
every house and hut of private life was more like 
the omnipresence of a deity. Compared with that 



popular leadership all the fusses of the last forty 
years are diversions In Idleness. Compared with 
such a case as his It may be said that we play 
with our politicians, and manage to endure our 
authors. We shall never have again such a popu- 
larity until we have again a people. 

He left behind him this almost sombre frag- 
ment, " The Mystery of Edwin Drood." As one 
turns it over the tragic element of its truncation 
mingles somewhat with an element of tragedy in 
the thing Itself; the passionate and predestined 
Landless, or the half maniacal Jasper carving 
devils out of his own heart. The workmanship 
of It Is very fine; the right hand has not only not 
lost, but is still gaining its cunning. But as we 
turn the now enigmatic pages the thought creeps 
into us again which I have suggested earlier, and 
which is never far off the mind of a true lover of 
Dickens. Had he lost or gained by the growth of 
technique and probability In his later work? His 
later characters were more like men ; but were not 
his earlier characters more like Immortals? He 
has become able to perform a social scene so that 
It Is possible at any rate ; but where is that Dickens 
who once performed the Impossible? Where Is 
that young poet who created such majors and 
architects as nature will never dare to create? 



Dickens learnt to describe daily life as Thackeray 
and Jane Austen could describe it ; but Thackeray 
could not have thought such a thought as Crum- 
mies; and it is painful to think of Miss Austen 
attempting to imagine Mantalini. After all, we 
feel there are many able novelists; but there is 
only one Dickens, and whither has he fled? 

He was alive to the end. And in this last dark 
and secretive story of Edwin Drood he makes 
one splendid and staggering appearance, like a 
magician saying farewell to mankind. In the cen- 
tre of this otherwise reasonable and rather melan- 
choly book, this grey story of a good clergyman 
and the quiet Cloisterham Towers, Dickens has 
calmly inserted one entirely delightful and entirely 
Insane passage. I mean the frantic and Incon- 
ceivable epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea, that which de- 
scribes her as " the reverential wife " of Thomas 
Sapsea, speaks of her consistency In " Looking up 
to him," and ends with the words, spaced out so 
admirably on the tombstone, *' Stranger pause. 
And ask thyself this question. Canst thou do like- 
wise? If not, with a blush retire." Not the wild- 
est tale In Pickwick contains such an Impossibility 
as that; Dickens dare scarcely have Introduced it, 
even as one of Jingle's lies. In no human church- 
yard will you find that Invaluable tombstone ; In- 



deed, you could scarcely find It In any world where 
there are churchyards. You could scarcely have 
such immortal folly as that in a world where there 
is also death. Mr. Sapsea is one of the golden 
things stored up for us in a better world. 

Yes, there were many other Dickenses : a clever 
Dickens, an industrious Dickens, a public-spirited 
Dickens; but this was the great one. This last 
outbreak of Insane humour reminds us wherein 
lay his power and his supremacy. The praise of 
such beatific buffoonery should be the final praise, 
the ultimate word in his honour. The wild epi- 
taph of Mrs. Sapsea should be the serious epitaph 
of Dickens. 



All criticism tends too much to become criticism 
of criticism ; and the reason Is very evident. It is 
that criticism of creation is so very staggering a 
thing. We see this In the difficulty of criticizing 
any artistic creation. We see it again In the diffi- 
culty of criticizing that creation which Is spelt with 
a capital C. The pessimists who attack the Uni- 
verse are always under this disadvantage. They 
have an exhilarating consciousness that they could 
make the sun and moon better; but they also have 
the depressing consciousness that they could not 
make the sun and moon at all. A man looking at 
a hippopotamus may sometimes be tempted to re- 
gard a hippopotamus as an enormous mistake; but 
he is also bound to confess that a fortunate Infe- 
riority prevents him personally from making such 
mistakes. It is neither a blasphemy nor an exag- 
geration to say that we feel something of the same 
difficulty in judging of the very creative element 
in human literature. And this Is the first and last 
dignity of Dickens; that he was a creator. He 



did not point out things, he made them. We may- 
disapprove of Mr. Guppy, but we recognize him 
as a creation flung down like a miracle out of an 
upper sphere; we can pull him to pieces, but we 
could not have put him together. We can destroy 
Mrs. Gamp in our wrath, but we could not have 
made her in our joy. Under this disadvantage 
any book about Dickens must definitely labour. 
Real primary creation (such as the sun or the birth 
of a child) calls forth not criticism, not apprecia- 
tion, but a kind of incoherent gratitude. This is 
why most hymns about God are bad; and this is 
why most eulogies on Dickens are bad. The eulo- 
gists of the divine and of the human creator are 
alike inclined to appear sentimentalists because 
they are talking about something so very real. In 
the same way love-letters always sound florid and 
artificial because they are about something real. 

Any chapter such as this chapter must therefore 
in a sense be inadequate. There is no way of deal- 
ing properly with the ultimate greatness of Dick- 
ens, except by offering sacrifice to him as a god; 
and this is opposed to the etiquette of our time. 
But something can perhaps be done in the way of 
suggesting what was the quality of this creation. 
But even in considering its quality we ought to re- 
member that quality Is not the whole question. One 



of the godlike things about Dickens Is his quantity, 
his quantity as such, the enormous output, the in- 
credible fecundity of his Invention. I have said 
a moment ago that not one of us could have In- 
vented Mr. Guppy. But even If we could have 
stolen Mr. Guppy from Dickens we have still to 
confront the fact that Dickens would have been 
able to Invent another quite Inconceivable character 
to take his place. Perhaps we could have created 
Mr. Guppy; but the effort would certainly have 
exhausted us; we should be ever afterwards 
wheeled about In a bath-chair at Bournemouth. 

Nevertheless there Is something that Is worth 
saying about the quality of Dickens. At the very 
beginning of this review I remarked that the 
reader must be In a mood, at least, of democracy. 
To some It may have sounded Irrelevant; but the 
Revolution was as much behind all the books of 
the nineteenth century as the Catholic religion 
(let us say) was behind all the colours and carving 
of the Middle Ages. Another great name of the 
nineteenth century will afford an evidence of this ; 
and will also bring us most sharply to the problem 
of the literary quality of Dickens. 

Of all these nineteenth century writers there 
Is none. In the noblest sense, more democratic than 
Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as 



It Is relevant, I will expand the remark. There 
are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow 
all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of 
human equality. There are two things in which 
all men are manifestly unmistakably equal. They 
are not equally clever or equally muscular or 
equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction 
(with piercing Insight) perceive. But this is a 
spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And 
this again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, 
that all men are comic. No special and private 
sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having 
to die. And no freak or deformity can be so 
funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every 
man Is Important If he loses his life; and every 
man Is funny If he loses his hat, and has to run 
after It. And the universal test everywhere of 
whether a thing is popular, of the people, is 
whether it employs vigorously these extremes of 
the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for Instance, 
was an aristocrat, if ever there was one In this 
world. He was a Republican, but he was not a 
democrat : In his poetry there is every perfect qual- 
ity except this pungent and popular stab. For the 
tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, 
a poor man. And all over the world, the folk 
literature, the popular literature, is the same. It 



consists of very dignified sorrow and very undigni- 
fied fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its 
happy tales are of broken heads. 

These, I say, are two roots of democratic real- 
ity. But they have in more civilized literature, a 
more civilized embodiment or form. In literature 
such as that of the nineteenth century the two ele- 
ments appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes 
a profound sense of human dignity. The other 
and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of 
human variety. The first supports equality by 
saying that all men are equally sublime. The sec- 
ond supports equality by observing that all men 
are equally Interesting. 

In this democratic aspect the interest and va- 
riety of all men, there Is, of course, no democrat 
so great as Dickens. But In the other matter, in 
the Idea of the dignity of all nien, I repeat that 
there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, 
which Is the moral and enduring magnificence of 
Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich 
and dramatic effects are gained in almost every 
case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising 
into a human pride and rhetoric. The common 
man. In the sense of the paltry man, becomes the 
common man In the sense of the universal man. 
He declares his humanity. For the meanest of 



all the modernltes has been the notion that the 
heroic Is an oddity or variation, and that the 
things that unite us are rherely flat or foul. The 
common things are terrible and startling, death, 
for Instance, and first love: the things that are 
common are the things that are not commonplace. 
Into such high and central passions the comic Scott 
character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm 
and almost stately answer of the preposterous 
NIcol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to 
browbeat him Into condoning lawlessness and 
breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is 
a great monument of the middle class. Mollere 
made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him 
talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing 
voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when 
he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of 
the proud appeal of the old beggar in the " Anti- 
quary " when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was 
fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his 
characters are kings in disguise. He was, with 
all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old 
religious conception (the only possible democratic 
basis), the Idea that man himself is a king In 

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, 
had In the strangest way the heart of the Revolu- 



tion. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art 
of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the 
oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, 
as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would 
have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect 
that he was, as an author, giving free speech to 
fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, 
denying it to real ones. But the point for us here 
is this: that all this popular sympathy of his rests 
on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. 
" Can you find no way? " asks Sir Arthur War- 
dour of the beggar when they are cut off by the 
tide. " I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make 
you rich." ..." Our riches will soon be 
equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the 
advancing sea. 

Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott 
because it is the best illustration of the one weak 
point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of 
this sense of the concealed sublimity of every sepa- 
rate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was 
entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other 
of the two supports of which I have spoken. It 
rested on the sense that all men were wildly inter- 
esting and wildly varied. When a Dickens char- 
acter becomes excited he becomes more and more 
himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn 



more and more Into man. As he rises he grows 
more and more Into a gargoyle or grotesque. He 
does not, like the fine speaker In Scott, grow more 
classical as he grows more passionate, more uni- 
versal as he grows more Intense. The thing can 
only be Illustrated by a special case. Dickens did 
more than once, of course, make one of his quaint 
or humble characters assert himself In a serious 
crisis or defy the powerful. There Is, for Instance, 
the quite admirable scene In which Susan Nipper 
(one of the greatest of Dickens's achievements) 
faces and rebukes Mr. Dombey. But It Is still true 
(and quite appropriate In Its own place and man- 
ner) that Susan Nipper remains a purely comic 
character throughout her speech, and even grows 
more comic as she goes on. She is more serious 
than usual In her meaning, but not more serious 
In her style. Dickens keeps the natural diction 
of Nipper, but makes her grow more Nipperish 
as she grows more warm. But Scott keeps the 
natural diction of Bailie Jarvie, but insensibly 
sobers and uplifts that style until It reaches a plain 
and appropriate eloquence. This plain and ap- 
propriate eloquence was (except in a few places 
at the end of "Pickwick") almost unknown to 
Dickens. Whenever he made comic characters 
talk sentiment comically, as In the Instance of 



Susan, it was a success, but an avowedly extrava- 
gant success. Whenever he made comic characters 
talk sentiment seriously it was an extravagant fail- 
ure. Humour was his medium; his only way of 
approaching emotion. Wherever you do not get 
humour, you get unconscious humour. 

As I have said elsewhere in this book Dickens 
was deeply and radically English; the most Eng- 
lish of our great writers. And there is something 
very English in this contentment with a grotesque 
democracy; and in this absence of the eloquence 
and elevation of Scott. The English democracy 
is the most humorous democracy in the world. 
The Scotch democracy is the most dignified, while 
the whole abandon and satiric genius of the Eng- 
lish populace come from its being quite undigni- 
fied in every way. A comparison of the two types 
might be found, for instance, by putting a Scotch 
Labour leader like Mr. Keir Hardie alongside an 
English Labour leader like Mr. Will Crooks. 
Both are good men, honest and responsible and 
compassionate; but we can feel that the Scotch- 
man carries himself seriously and universally, the 
Englishman personally and with an obstinate hu- 
mour. Mr. Hardie wishes to hold up his head 
as Man, Mr. Crooks wishes to follow his nose 
as Crooks. Mr. Keir Hardie is very like a poor 



man in Walter Scott. Mr. Crooks is very like a 
poor man in Dickens. 

Dickens then had this English feeling of a 
grotesque democracy. By that is more properly 
meant a vastly varying democracy. The intoxi- 
cating variety of men — that was his vision and 
conception of human brotherhood. And certainly 
it is a great part of human brotherhood. In one 
sense things can only be equal if they are entirely 
different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a 
quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or 
equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly 
be any inequality between a lock and a key. 
Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever 
all the items literally have an identical aim, there 
is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman 
is only inferior to man in the matter of being not 
so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is 
inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman ; 
there is no other reason. And the same applies 
in some degree to all genuine differences. It is a 
great mistake to suppose that love unites and uni- 
fies men. Love diversifies them, because love is 
directed towards individuality. The thing that 
really unites men and makes them like to each 
other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we 
love Germany the more pleased we shall be that 


Germany should be something different from our- 
selves, should keep her own ritual and convivial- 
ity and we ours. But the more we hate Germany 
the more we shall copy German guns and German 
fortifications in order to be armed against Ger-; 
many. The more modern nations detest each 
other the more meekly they follow each other; 
for all competition is in Its nature only a furious 
plagiarism. As competition means always similar- 
ity, It Is equally true that similarity always means 
inequality. If everything Is trying to be green, 
some things will be greener than others ; but there 
is an immortal and Indestructible equality between 
green and red. Something of the same kind of 
Irrefutable equality exists between the violent and 
varying creations of such a writer as Dickens. 
They are all equally ecstatic fulfilments of a sepa- 
rate line of development. It would be hard to say 
that there could be any comparison or inequality, 
let us say between Mr. Sapsea and Mr. Elijah 
Pogram. They are both in the same difiFiCulty ; they 
can neither of them contrive to exist In this w^orld ; 
they are both too big for the gate of birth. 

Of the high virtue of this variation I shall speak 
more adequately In a momen^; but certainly this 
love of mere variation (which I have contrasted 
with the classicism of Scott) is the only Intelligent 



statement of the common case against the exag- 
geration of Dickens. This is the meaning, the 
only sane or endurable meaning, which people have 
in their minds when they say that Dickens is a 
mere caricaturist. They do not mean merely that 
Uncle Pumblechook does not exist. A fictitious 
character ought not to be a person who exists; 
he ought to be an entirely new combination, an 
addition to the creatures already existing on the 
earth. They do not mean that Uncle Pumble- 
chook could not exist; for on that obviously they 
can have no knowledge whatever. They do not 
mean that Uncle Pumblechook's utterances are 
selected and arranged so as to bring out his es- 
sential Pumblechookery; to say that is simply to 
say that he occurs in a work of art. But what they 
do really mean is this, and there is an element of 
truth in it. They mean that Dickens nowhere 
makes the reader feel that Pumblechook has any 
kind of fundamental human dignity at all. It is 
nowhere suggested that Pumblechook will some 
day die. He is felt rather as one of the idle and 
evil fairies, who are innocuous and yet malignant, 
and who live for ever because they never really 
live at all. This dehumanized vitality, this fan- 
tasy, this irresponsibility of creation, does in some 
sense truly belong to Dickens. It is the lower side 



of his hilarious human variety. But now we come 
to the higher side of his human variety, and it is 
far more difficult to state. 

Mr. George Gissing, from the point of view of 
the passing intellectualism of our day, has made 
(among his many wise tributes to Dickens) a 
characteristic complaint about him. He has said 
that Dickens, with all his undoubted sympathy for 
the lower classes, never made a working man, a 
poor man, specifically and highly intellectual. An 
exception does exist, which he must at least have 
realized — a wit, a diplomatist, a great philoso- 
pher. I mean, of course, Mr. Weller. Broadly, 
however, the accusation has a truth, though it Is 
a truth that Mr. Gissing did not grasp in Its en- 
tirety. It Is not only true that Dickens seldom 
made a poor character what we call intellectual; 
it is also true that he seldom made any character 
what we call intellectual. Intellectualism was not 
at all present to his imagination. What was pres- 
ent to his Imagination was character — a thing 
which Is not only more important than intellect, 
but Is also much more entertaining. When some 
English moralists write about the Importance of 
having character, they appear to mean only the 
Importance of having a dull character. But char- 
acter Is brighter than wit, and much more complex 



than sophistry. The whole superiority of the 
democracy of Dickens over the democracy of such 
a man as Gissing lies exactly In the fact that Giss- 
ing would have liked to prove that poor men could 
instruct themselves and could Instruct others. It 
was of final Importance to Dickens that poor men 
could amuse themselves and could amuse him. He 
troubled little about the mere education of that 
life; he declared two essential things about it — 
that It was laughable, and that It was livable. The 
humble characters of Dickens do not amuse each 
other with epigrams; they amuse each other with 
themselves. The present that each man brings 
In hand Is his own Incredible personality. In the 
most sacred sense, and in the most literal sense 
of the phrase, he *' gives himself away." Now, 
the man who gives himself away does the last act 
of generosity; he Is like a martyr, a lover, or a 
monk. But he Is also almost certainly what we 
commonly call a fool. 

The key of the great characters of Dickens Is 
that they are all great fools. There Is the same 
difference between a great fool and a small fool 
as there Is between a great poet and a small poet. 
The great fool Is a being who Is above wisdom 
rather than below It. That element of greatness 
of which I spoke at the beginning of this book Is 



nowhere more clearly indicated than in such char- 
acters. A man can be entirely great while he is 
entirely foolish. We see this in the epic heroes, 
such as Achilles. Nay, a man can be entirely great 
because he is entirely foolish. We see this in all 
the great comic characters of all the great comic 
writers of whom Dickens was the last. Bottom 
the Weaver Is great because he Is foolish; Mr. 
Toots Is great because he is foolish. The thing 
I mean can be observed, for Instance, In innumera- 
ble actual characters. Which of us has not known, 
for Instance, a great rustic? — a character so in- 
curably characteristic that he seemed to break 
through all canons about cleverness or stupidity; 
we do not know whether he Is an enormous idiot 
or an enormous philosopher; we know only that 
he is enormous, like a hill. These great, grotesque 
characters are almost entirely to be found where 
Dickens found them — among the poorer classes. 
The gentry only attain this greatness by going 
slightly mad. But who has not known an un- 
fathomably personal old nurse? Who has not 
known an abysmal butler? The truth Is that our 
public life consists almost exclusively of small men. 
Our public men are small because they have to 
prove that they are In the common-place Interpre- 
tation clever, because they have to pass examlna- 



tlons, to learn codes of manners, to Imitate a fixed 
type. It Is In private life that we find the great 
characters. They are too great to get Into the 
pubhc world. It Is easier for a camel to pass 
through the eye of a needle than for a great man 
to enter Into the kingdoms of the earth. The 
truly great and gorgeous personality, he who talks 
as no one else could talk and feels with an ele- 
mentary fire, you will never find this man on any 
cabinet bench, in any literary circle, at any society 
dinner. Least of all will you find him in artistic 
society; he Is utterly unknown In Bohemia. He 
Is more than clever, he is amusing. He Is more 
than successful, he Is alive. You will find him 
stranded here and there In all sorts of unknown 
positions, almost always In unsuccessful positions. 
You will find him adrift as an Impecunious com- 
mercial traveller like Micawber. You will find 
him but one of a batch of silly clerks, like Swlv- 
eller. You will find him as an unsuccessful actor, 
like Crummies. You will find him as an unsuccess- 
ful doctor, like Sawyer. But you will always 
find this rich and reeking personality where Dick- 
ens found It — among the poor. For the glory of 
this world is a very small and priggish affair, and 
these men are too large to get in line with it. 
They are too strong to conquer. 



It Is Impossible to do justice to these figures 
because the essential of them Is their multiplicity. 
The whole point of Dickens Is that he not only- 
made them, but made them by myriads; that he 
stamped his foot, and armies came out of the 
earth. But let us, for the sake of showing the true 
Dickens method, take one of them, a very sub- 
lime one, Toots. It affords a good example of 
the real work of Dickens, which was the revealing 
of a certain grotesque greatness Inside an obscure 
and even unattractive type. It reveals the great 
paradox of all spiritual things; that the Inside Is 
always larger than the outside. 

Toots Is a type that we all know as well as we 
know chimney-pots. And of all conceivable human 
figures he Is apparently the most futile and the 
most dull. He Is the blockhead who hangs on at a 
private school, overgrown and underdeveloped. 
He Is always backward In his lessons, but forward 
in certain cheap ways of the world; he can smoke 
before he can spell. Toots Is a perfect and pun- 
gent picture of the wretched youth. Toots has, as 
this youth always has, a little money of his own; 
enough to waste In a seml-dlsslpatlon, he does not 
enjoy, and In a gaping regard for sports. In which 
he could not possibly excel. Toots has, as this 
youth always has, bits of surreptitious finery. In 



his case the incomparable ring. In Toots, above 
all, is exactly rendered the central and most start- 
ling contradiction; the contrast between a jaunti- 
ness and a certain impudence of the attire, with the 
profound shame and sheepishness of the visage and 
the character. In him, too, is expressed the larger 
contrasts between the external gaiety of such a 
lad's occupations, and the infinite, disconsolate sad- 
ness of his empty eyes. This is Toots ; we know 
him, we pity him, and we avoid him. School- 
masters deal with him in despair or in a heart- 
breaking patience. His family is vague about 
him. His low-class hangers-on (like the Game 
Chicken) lead him by the nose. The very para- 
sites that live on him despise him. But Dickens 
does not despise him. Without denying one of 
the dreary details which make us avoid the man, 
Dickens makes him a man whom we long to meet. 
He does not gloss over one of his dismal defi- 
ciencies, but he makes them seem suddenly like 
violent virtues that we would go to the world's 
end to see. Without altering one fact he man- 
ages to alter the whole atmosphere, the whole 
universe of Toots. He makes us not only like, 
but love; not only love, but reverence this little 
dunce and cad. The power to do this is a power 
truly and literally to be called divine. 



For this is the very wholesome point. Dickens 
does not alter Toots In any vital point. The thing 
he does alter is us. He makes us lively where we 
were bored, kind where we were cruel, and above 
all, free for an universal human laughter where 
we were cramped In a small competition about that 
sad and solemn thing, the Intellect. His enthusi- 
asm fills us, as does the love of God, with a 
glorious shame; after all, he has only found in 
Toots what we might have found for ourselves. 
He has only made us as much interested in Toots 
as Toots Is In himself. He does not alter the pro-, 
portions of Toots; he alters only the scale; we 
seem as If we were staring at a rat risen to the 
stature of an elephant. Hitherto we have passed 
him by; now we feel that nothing could Induce us 
to pass him by; that is the nearest way of putting 
the truth. He has not been whitewashed in the 
least; he has not been depicted as any cleverer 
than he is. He has been turned from a small fool 
Into a great fool. We know Toots is not clever; 
but we are not Inclined to quarrel with Toots be- 
cause he is not clever. We are more likely to 
quarrel with cleverness because it is not Toots. 
All the examinations he could not pass, all the 
schools he could not enter, all the temporary 
tests of brain and culture which surrounded 



him shall pass, and Toots shall remain like a 

It may be noticed that the great artists always 
choose great fools rather than great Intellectuals 
to embody humanity. Hamlet does express the 
aesthetic dreams and the bewilderments of the In- 
tellect; but Bottom the Weaver expresses them 
much better. In the same manner Toots expresses 
certain permanent dignities In human nature more 
than any of Dickens's more dignified characters 
can do It. For Instance, Toots expresses admira- 
bly the enduring fear, which Is the very essence of 
falling In love. When Toots Is Invited by Flor- 
ence to come In, when he longs to come In, but still 
stays out, he Is embodying a sort of Insane and 
perverse humility which Is elementary In the lover. 

There Is an apostolic Injunction to suffer fools 
gladly. We always lay the stress on the word 
suffer, and Interpret the passage as one urging 
resignation. It might be better, perhaps, to lay 
the stress upon the word gladly, and make our 
familiarity with fools a delight, and almost a dis- 
sipation. Nor Is it necessary that our pleasure In 
fools (or at least in great and godlike fools) 
should be merely satiric or cruel. The great fool 
Is he in whom we cannot tell which is the conscious 
and which the unconscious humour ; we laugh with 



him and laugh at him at the same time. An ob- 
vious instance is that of ordinary and happy mar- 
riage. A man and a woman cannot Hve together 
without having against each other a kind of ever- 
lasting joke. Each has discovered that the other 
is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this 
grossness and gorgeousness of folly Is the thing 
which we all find about those with whom we are 
in intimate contact; and it Is the one enduring 
basis of affection, and even of respect. When we 
know an Individual named Tomkins, we know that 
he has succeeded where all others have failed; he 
has succeeded in being Tomkins. Just so Mr. 
Toots succeeded; he was defeated in all scholastic 
examinations, but he was the victor In that vision- 
ary battle In which unknown competitors vainly 
tried to be Toots. 

If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the 
last and deepest lesson of Dickens. It Is In our 
own dally life that we are to look for the portents 
and the prodigies. This Is the truth, not merely 
of the fixed figures of our life; the wife, the hus- 
band, the fool that fills the sky. It Is true of the 
whole stream and substance of our dally experi- 
ence; every Instant we reject a great fool merely 
because he Is foolish. Every day we neglect 
Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Jobllngs, Sim- 



merys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last 
sight of Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical 
Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every day we are 
missing a monster whom we might easily love, and 
an imbecile whom we should certainly admire. 
This Is the real gospel of Dickens; the inexhausti- 
ble opportunities offered by the liberty and the 
variety of man. Compared with this life, all 
public life, all fame, all wisdom, is by its nature 
cramped and cold and small. For on that defined 
and lighted public stage men are of necessity 
forced to profess one set of accomplishments, to 
rise to one rigid standard. It Is the utterly un- 
known people, who can grow in all directions like 
an exuberant tree. It Is In our Interior lives that 
we find that people are too much themselves. It 
Is In our private life that we find people Intolerably 
Individual, that we find them swelling Into the 
enormous contours, and taking on the colours of 
caricature. Many of us live publicly with feature- 
less public puppets, Images of the small public 
abstractions. It Is when we pass our own private 
gate, and open our own secret door, that we step 
Into the land of the giants. 




In one of the plays of the decadent period, an 
Intellectual expressed the atmosphere of his epoch 
by referring to Dickens as " a vulgar optimist." 
I have in a previous chapter suggested something 
of the real strangeness of such a term. After all, 
the main matter of astonishment (or rather of 
admiration) is that optimism should be vulgar. 
In a world in which physical distress is almost the 
common lot, we actually complain that happiness 
is too common. In a world in which the majority 
is physically miserable we actually complain of the 
sameness of praise; we are bored with the abun- 
dance of approval. When we consider what the 
conditions of the vulgar really are, it is difficult to 
imagine a stranger or more splendid tribute to 
humanity than such a phrase as vulgar optimism. 
It Is as if one spoke of " vulgar martyrdom " or 
*' common crucifixion." 

First, however, let it be said frankly that there 
is a foundation for the charge against Dickens 
which is imolled In the phrase about vulgar op- 



timism. It does not concern Itself with Dickens's 
confidence in the value of existence and the in- 
trinsic victory of virtue; that is not optimism but 
religion. It is not concerned with his habit of 
making bright occasions bright, and happy stories 
happy; that is not optimism, but literature. Nor 
is it concerned even with his peculiar genius for 
the description of an almost bloated joviality; that 
is not optimism, it is simply Dickens. With all 
these higher variations of optimism I deal else- 
where. But over and above all these there is a 
real sense in which Dickens laid himself open to 
the accusation of vulgar optimism, and I desire 
to put the admission of this first, before the dis- 
cussion that follows. Dickens did have a dispo- 
sition to make his characters at all costs happy, 
or, to speak more strictly, he had a disposition to 
make them comfortable rather than happy. He 
had a sort of literary hospitality; he too often 
treated his characters as if they were his guests. 
From a host is always expected, and always ought 
to be expected as long as human civilization Is 
healthy, a strictly physical benevolence, if you will, 
a kind of coarse benevolence. Food and fire and 
such things should always be the symbols of the 
man entertaining men ; because they are the things 
which all men beyond question have In common. 



But something more than this is needed from the 
man who is imagining and making men, the artist, 
the man who is not receiving men, but rather send- 
ing them forth. 

As I shall remark in a moment in the matter of 
the Dickens villains. It Is not true that he made 
every one thus at home. But he did do It to a 
certain wide class of incongruous characters; he 
did it to all who had been in any way unfortunate. 
It had indeed its origin (a very beautiful origin) 
in his realization of how much a little pleasure 
was to such people. He knew well that the great- 
est happiness that has been known since Eden is 
the happiness of the unhappy. So far he Is ad- 
mirable. And as long as he was describing the 
ecstasy of the poor, the borderland between pain 
and pleasure, he was at his highest. Nothing that 
has ever been written about human delights, no 
Earthly Paradise, no Utopia has ever come so 
near the quick nerve of happiness as his descrip- 
tions of the rare extravagances of the poor; such 
an admirable description, for Instance, as that of 
Kit Nubbles taking his family to the theatre. For 
he seizes on the real source of the whole pleasure ; 
a holy fear. Kit tells the waiter to bring the beer. 
" And the waiter. Instead of saying, ' Did you 
address that language to me? ' only said, ^ Pot of 



beer, sir; yes, sir.' " That internal and quivering 
humility of Kit is the only way to enjoy life or 
banquets; and the fear of the waiter is the be- 
ginning of dining. People in this mood " take 
their pleasures sadly"; which is the only way of 
taking them at all. 

So far Dickens is supremely right. As long as 
he was dealing with such penury and such festivity 
his touch was almost invariably sure. But when 
he came to more difficult cases, to people who for 
one reason or another could not be cured with 
one good dinner, he did develop this other evil, 
this genuinely vulgar optimism of which I speak. 
And the mark of it is this : that he gave the char- 
acters a comfort that had no especial connection 
with themselves; he threw comfort at them like 
alms. There are cases at the end of his stories 
in which his kindness to his characters is a care- 
less and insolent kindness. He loses his real 
charity and adopts the charity of the Charity Or- 
ganization Society; the charity that is not kind, 
the charity, that is puffed up, and that does behave 
Itself unseemly. At the end of some of his stories 
he deals out his characters a kind of out-door 

I will give two instances. The whole meaning 
of the character of Mr. Micawber is that a man 



can be always almost rich by constantly expecting 
riches. The lesson is a really important one in 
our sweeping modern sociology. We talk of the 
man whose life is a failure; but Micawber's life 
never is a failure, because it is always a crisis. 
We think constantly of the man who if he looked 
back would see that his existence was unsuccess- 
ful; but Micawber never does look back; he al- 
ways looks forward, because the bailiff is coming 
to-morrow. You cannot say he is defeated, for his 
absurd battle never ends; he cannot despair of life, 
for he is so much occupied in living. All this is 
of immense importance in the understanding of the 
poor; it is worth all the slum novelists that ever 
insulted democracy. But how did it happen, how 
could it happen, that the man who created this 
Micawber could pension him off at the end of 
the story and make him a successful colonial 
mayor? Micawber never did succeed, never ought 
to succeed; his kingdom is not of this world. But 
this is an excellent instance of Dickens's disposi- 
tion to make his characters grossly and incongru- 
ously comfortable. There is another instance in 
the same book. Dora, the first wife of David 
Copperfield, is a very genuine and amusing figure ; 
she has certainly far more force of character than 
Agnes. She represents the infinite and divine ir- 



rationality of the human heart. What possessed 
Dickens to make her such a dehumanized prig as 
to recommend her husband to marry another 
woman ? One could easily respect a husband who 
after time and development made such a marriage, 
but surely not a wife who desired it. If Dora had 
died hating Agnes we should know that everything 
was right, and that God would reconcile the irre- 
concilable. When Dora dies recommending Agnes 
we know that everything is wrong, at least if hy- 
pocrisy and artificiality and moral vulgarity are 
wrong. There, again, Dickens yields to a mere 
desire to give comfort. He wishes to pile up 
pillows round Dora; and he smothers her with 
them, like Othello. 

This is the real vulgar optimism of Dickens; 
it does exist, and I have deliberately put it first. 
Let us admit that Dickens's mind was far too much 
filled with pictures of satisfaction and cosiness and 
repose. Let us admit that he thought principally 
of the pleasures of the oppressed classes; let us 
admit that it hardly cost him any artistic pang to 
make out human beings as much happier than they 
are. Let us admit all this, and a curious fact 

For it was this too easily contented Dickens, 
this man with cushions at his back and (it some- 



times seems) cotton wool in his ears, it was this 
happy dreamer, this vulgar optimist who alone of 
modern writers did really destroy some of the 
wrongs he hated and bring about some of the 
reforms he desired. Dickens did help to pull 
down the debtors' prisons ; and if he was too much 
of an optimist he was quite enough of a destroyer. 
Dickens did drive Squeers out of his Yorkshire 
den; and If Dickens was too contented, It was 
more than Squeers was. Dickens did leave his 
mark on parochialism, on nursing, on funerals, on 
public executions, on workhouses, on the Court of 
Chancery. These things were altered; they are 
different. It may be that such reforms are not 
adequate remedies; that Is another question alto- 
gether. The next sociologists may think these old 
Radical reforms quite narrow or accidental. But 
such as they were, the old radicals got them done ; 
and the new sociologists cannot get anything done 
at all. And in the practical doing of them Dick- 
ens played a solid and quite demonstrable part; 
that Is the plain matter that concerns us here. If 
Dickens was an optimist he was an uncommonly 
active and useful kind of optimist. If Dickens 
was a sentimentalist he was a very practical sen- 

And the reason of this Is one that goes deep 


Into Dickens's social reform, and like every other 
real and desirable thing, Involves a kind of mys- 
tical contradiction. If we are to save the op- 
pressed, we must have two apparently antagonistic 
emotions In us at the same time. We must think 
the oppressed man Intensely miserable, and, at the 
same time, intensely attractive and important. We 
must insist with violence upon his degradation; 
we must insist with the same violence upon his 
dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one as- 
sertion, men will say he does not need saving. 
And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, 
men will say he is not worth saving. The op- 
timists will say that reform is needless. The 
pessimists will say that reform Is hopeless. We 
must apply both simultaneously to the same op- 
pressed man; we must say that he Is a worm and 
a god; and we must thus lay ourselves open to 
the accusation (or the compliment) of transcen- 
dentalism. This Is, indeed, the strongest argu- 
ment for the religious conception of life. If the 
dignity of man Is an earthly dignity we shall be 
tempted to deny his earthly degradation. If it 
is a heavenly dignity we can admit the earthly 
degradation with all the candour of Zola. If we 
are idealists about the other world we can be real- 
ists about this world. But that is not here the 



point. What Is quite evident Is that If a logical 
praise of the poor man Is pushed too far, and If 
a logical distress about him Is pushed too far, either 
will Involve wreckage to the central paradox of 
reform. If the poor man Is made too admirable 
he ceases to be pitiable; If the poor man Is made 
too pitiable he becomes merely contemptible. 
There Is a school of smug optimists who will deny 
that he Is a poor man. There Is a school of scien- 
tific pessimists who will deny that he Is a man. 

Out of this perennial contradiction arises the 
fact that there are always two types of the re- 
former. The first we may call for convenience 
the pessimistic, the second the optimistic reformer. 
One dwells upon the fact that souls are being lost; 
the other dwells upon the fact that they are worth 
saving. Both, of course, are (so far as that is 
concerned) quite right, but they naturally tend to a 
difference of method, and sometimes to a difference 
of perception. The pessimistic reformer points out 
the good elements that oppression has destroyed; 
the optimistic reformer, with an even fiercer joy, 
points out the good elements that It has not de- 
stroyed. It Is the case for the first reformer that 
slavery has made men slavish. It is the case for 
the second reformer that slavery has not made 
men slavish. The first describes how bad men are 



under bad conditions. The second describes how 
good men are under bad conditions. Of the first 
class of writers, for Instance, Is Gorky. Of the 
second class of writers Is Dickens. 

But here we must register a real and somewhat 
startling fact. In the face of all apparent probabil- 
ity. It is certainly true that the optimistic reformer 
reforms much more completely than the pessimistic 
reformer. People produce violent changes by 
being contented, by being far too contented. The 
man who said that revolutions are not made with 
rose-water was obviously inexperienced in practi- 
cal human affairs. Men like Rousseau and Shel- 
ley do make revolutions, and do make them with 
rose-water; that is, with a too rosy and sentimental 
view of human goodness. Figures that come be- 
fore and create convulsion and change (for in- 
stance, the central figure of the New Testament) 
always have the air of walking in an unnatural 
sweetness and calm. They give us their peace 
ultimately in blood and battle and division; not 
as the world giveth give they unto us. 

Nor is the real reason of the triumph of the 
too-contented reformer particularly difficult to de- 
fine. He triumphs because he keeps alive in the 
human soul an Invincible sense of the thing being 
worth doing, of the war being worth winning, 



of the people being worth their deliverance. I 
remember that Mr. William Archer, some time 
ago, published In his Interesting series of inter- 
views, an Interview with Mr. Thomas Hardy. 
That powerful writer was represented as saying, 
In the course of the conversation, that he did not 
wish at the particular moment to define his posi- 
tion with regard to the ultimate problem of 
whether life Itself was worth living. There are, 
he said, hundreds of remediable evils In this world. 
When we have remedied all these (such was his 
argument). It will be time enough to ask whether 
existence Itself under Its best possible conditions 
Is valuable or desirable. Here we have presented, 
with a considerable element of what can only be 
called unconscious humour, the plain reason of the 
failure of the pessimist as a reformer. Mr. 
Hardy is asking us, I will not say to buy a pig 
in a poke; he is asking us to buy a poke on the 
remote chance of there being a pig in it. When 
we have for some few frantic centuries tortured 
ourselves to save mankind, it will then be " time 
enough " to discuss whether they can possibly be 
saved. When, in the case of infant mortality, for 
example, we have exhausted ourselves with the 
earth-shaking efforts required to save the life of 
every individual baby, it will then be time enough 



to consider whether every Individual baby would 
not have been happier dead. We are to remove 
mountains and bring the millennium, because then 
we can have a quiet moment to discuss whether the 
millennium is at all desirable. Here we have the 
low-water mark of the impotence of the sad re- 
former. And here we have the reason of the 
paradoxical triumph of the happy one. His tri- 
umph Is a religious triumph; It rests upon his per- 
petual assertion of the value of the human soul 
and of human daily life. It rests upon his asser- 
tion that human life Is enjoyable because It Is 
human. And he will never admit, like so many 
compassionate pessimists, that human life ever 
ceases to be human. He does not merely pity the 
lowness of men; he feels an insult to their eleva- 
tion. Brute pity should be given only to the 
brutes. Cruelty to animals Is cruelty and a vile 
thing; but cruelty to a man Is not cruelty, it Is 
treason. Tyranny over a man Is not tyranny, It 
is rebellion, for man Is loyal. Now, the practical 
weakness of the vast mass of modern pity for the 
poor and the oppressed Is precisely that it is merely 
pity; the pity is pitiful, but not respectful. Men 
feel that the cruelty to the poor is a kind of 
cruelty to animals. They never feel that It Is 
injustice to equals ; nay, It Is treachery to comrades. 



This dark, scientific pity, this brutal pity, has an 
elemental sincerity of its own; but it is entirely 
useless for all ends of social reform. Democracy 
swept Europe with the sabre when it was founded 
upon the Rights of Man. It has done literally 
nothing at all since it has been founded only upon 
the wrongs of man. Or, more strictly speaking, 
its recent failures have been due to its not admitting 
the existence of any rights or wrongs, or indeed 
of any humanity. Evolution (the sinister enemy 
of revolution) does not especially deny the exist- 
ence of God; what it does deny is the existence of 
man. And all the despair about the poor, and the 
cold and repugnant pity for them, has been largely 
due to the vague sense that they have literally 
relapsed into the state of the lower animals. 

A writer sufficiently typical of recent revolu- 
tionism — Gorky — has called one of his books by 
the eerie and effective title " Creatures that Once 
were Men." That title explains the whole failure 
of the Russian revolution. And the reason why 
the English writers, such as Dickens, did with all 
their limitations achieve so many of the actual 
things at which they aimed, was that they could 
not possibly have put such a title upon a human 
book. Dickens really helped the unfortunate in 
the matters to which he set himself. And the 



reason Is that across all his books and sketches 
about the unfortunate might be written the com- 
mon title, " Creatures that Still are Men." 

There does exist, then, this strange optimistic 
reformer; the man whose work begins with ap- 
proval and yet ends with earthquake. Jesus Christ 
was destined to found a faith which made the 
rich poorer and the poor richer; but even when 
He was going to enrich them, He began with the 
phrase, ^' Blessed are the poor." The Gissings 
and the Gorkys say, as an universal literary motto, 
" Cursed are the poor." Among a million who 
have faintly followed Christ in this divine contra- 
diction, Dickens stands out especially. He said, in 
all his reforming utterances, " Cure poverty "; but 
he said in all his actual descriptions, " Blessed are 
the poor." He described their happiness, and men 
rushed to remove their sorrow. He described 
them as human, and men resented the insults to 
their humanity. It is not difficult to see why, as 
I said at an earlier stage of this book, Dickens's 
denunciations have had so much more practical an 
effect than the denunciations of such a man as 
Gissing. Both agreed that the souls of the people 
were In a kind of prison. But Gissing said that 
the prison was full of dead souls. Dickens said 
that the prison was full of living souls. And the 



fiery cavalcade of rescuers felt that they had not 
come too late. 

Of this general fact about Dickens's descrip- 
tions of poverty there will not, I suppose, be any 
serious dispute. The dispute will only be about 
the truth of those descriptions. It Is clear that 
whereas GIssIng would say, " See how their pov- 
erty depresses the Smiths or the Browns," Dickens 
says, " See how little, after all, their poverty can 
depress the Cratchlts." No one will deny that he 
made a special feature a special study of the sub- 
ject of the festivity of the poor. We will come 
to the discussion of the veracity of these scenes 
in a moment. It Is here sufficient to register In 
conclusion of our examination of the reforming 
optimist, that Dickens certainly was such an op- 
timist, and that he made it his business to Insist 
upon what happiness there Is In the lives of the 
unhappy. His poor man is always a Mark Tap- 
ley, a man the optimism of whose spirit increases 
if anything with the pessimism of his experience. 
It can also be registered as a fact equally solid and 
quite equally demonstrable that this optimistic 
Dickens did effect great reforms. 

The reforms In which Dickens was instrumental 
were, indeed, from the point of view of our sweep- 
ing, social panaceas, special and limited. But per- 



haps, for that reason especially, they afford a com- 
pact and concrete instance of the psychological 
paradox of which we speak. Dickens did defi- 
nitely destroy — or at the very least help to destroy 
— certain institutions; he destroyed those institu- 
tions simply by describing them. But the crux and 
peculiarity of the whole matter is this, that, in a 
sense, it can really be said that he described these 
things too optimistically. In a real sense, he de- 
scribed Dotheboys Hall as a better place than it Is. 
In a real sense, he made out the workhouse as a 
pleasanter place than It can ever be. For the chief 
glory of Dickens Is that he made these places 
interesting; and the chief infamy of England Is 
that it has made these places dull. Dulness was 
the one thing that Dickens's genius could never 
succeed In describing; his vitality was so violent 
that he could not Introduce Into his books the 
genuine impression even of a moment of monotony. 
If there is anywhere In his novels an Instant of 
silence, we only hear more clearly the hero whis- 
pering with the heroine, the villain sharpening his 
dagger, or the creaking of the machinery that Is 
to give out the god from the machine. He could 
splendidly describe gloomy places, but he could 
not describe dreary places. He could describe 
miserable marriages, but not monotonous mar- 



riages. It must have been genuinely entertaining 
to be married to Mr. QuUp. This sense of a still 
Incessant excitement he spreads over every inch 
of his story, and over every dark tract of his land- 
scape. His Idea of a desolate place Is a place 
where anything can happen ; he has no Idea of that 
desolate place where nothing can happen. This is 
a good thing for his soul, for the place where 
nothing can happen Is hell. But still, It might 
reasonably be maintained by the modern mind that 
he Is hampered in describing human evil and sor- 
row by this inability to Imagine tedium, this 
dulness In the matter of dulness. For, after all, 
It is certainly true that the worst part of the lot 
of the unfortunate is the fact that they have long 
spaces in which to review the irrevocability of their 
doom. It Is certainly true that the worst days of 
the oppressed man are the nine days out of ten 
in which he Is not oppressed. This sense of sick- 
ness, and sameness Dickens did certainly fail or 
refuse to give. When we read such a description 
as that excellent one — In detail — of Dotheboys 
Hall, we feel that, while everything else Is accu- 
rate, the author does, in the words of the excellent 
Captain Nares In Stevenson's " Wrecker,'' " draw 
the dreariness rather mild." The boys at Dothe- 
boys were, perhaps, less bullied, but they were cer- 



talnly more bored. For, indeed, how could any 
one be bored with the society of so sumptuous a 
creature as Mr. Squeers? Who would not put up 
with a few illogical floggings in order to enjoy 
the conversation of a man who could say, " She's 
a rum 'un, is Natur'. . . . Natur' is more easier 
conceived than described"? The same principle 
applies to the workhouse in " Oliver Twist." We 
feel vaguely that neither Oliver nor any one else 
could be entirely unhappy in the presence of the 
purple personality of Mr. Bumble. The one thing 
he did not describe in any of the abuses he de- 
nounced was the soul-destroying potency of rou- 
tine. He made out the bad school, the bad pa- 
rochial system, the bad debtors' prison as very 
much jollier and more exciting than they may 
really have been. In a sense, then, he flattered 
them ; but he destroyed them with the flattery. By 
making Mrs. Gamp delightful he made her Im- 
possible. He gave every one an interest in Mr. 
Bumble's existence; and by the same act gave 
every one an interest in his destruction. It would 
be difficult to find a stronger instance of the utility 
and energy of the method which we have, for the 
sake of argument, called the method of the optimis- 
tic reformer. As long as low Yorkshire schools 
w^ere entirely colourless and dreary, they continued 



quietly tolerated by the public, and quietly intol- 
erable to the victims. So long as Squeers was dull 
as well as cruel he was permitted; the moment he 
became amusing as well as cruel he was destroyed. 
As long as Bumble was merely inhuman he was 
allowed. When he became human, humanity 
wiped him out. For in order to do these great acts 
of justice we must always realize not only the 
humanity of the oppressed, but even the humanity 
of the oppressor. The satirist had, in a sense, to 
create the images in the mind before, as an icono- 
clast, he could destroy them. Dickens had to make 
Squeers live before he could make him die. 

In connection with the accusation of vulgar 
optimism, which I have taken as a text for this 
chapter, there is another somewhat odd thing to 
notice. Nobody in the world was ever less opti- 
mistic than Dickens in his treatment of evil or the 
evil man. When I say optimistic in this matter 
I mean optimism, in the modern sense, of an at- 
tempt to whitewash evil. Nobody ever made less 
attempt to whitewash evil than Dickens. Nobody 
black was ever less white than Dickens's black. 
He painted his villains and lost characters more 
black than they really are. He crowds his stories 
with a kind of villain rare in modern fiction — the 
villain really without any " redeeming point/' 



There is no redeeming point in Squeers, or In 
Monck, or in Ralph Nickleby, or in Bill Sikes, or 
in Quilp, or in Brass, or in Mr. Chester, or In Mr. 
Pecksniff, or In Jonas Chuzzlewit, or In Carker, or 
In Uriah Heep, or In Blandois, or in a hundred 
more. So far as the balance of good and evil in 
human characters Is concerned, Dickens certainly 
could not be called a vulgar optimist. His empha- 
sis on evil was melodramatic. He might be called 
a vulgar pessimist. 

Some will dismiss this lurid villainy as a detail 
of his artificial romance. I am not inclined to do 
so. He Inherited, undoubtedly, this unqualified 
villain as he Inherited so many other things, from 
the whole history of European literature. But he 
breathed Into the blackguard a peculiar and vigo- 
rous life of his own. He did not show any tendency 
to modify his blackguardism In accordance with the 
Increasing considerateness of the age; he did not 
seem to wish to make his villain less villainous; 
he did not wish to Imitate the analysis of George 
Eliot, or the reverent scepticism of Thackeray. 
And all this works back, I think, to a real thing In 
him, that he wished to have an obstreperous and 
incalculable enemy. He wished to keep alive the 
idea of CQjnbat, which means, of necessity, a combat 
against something individual and ahve. I do not 



know whether, in the kindly rationalism of his 
epoch, he kept any belief in a personal devil in his 
theology, but he certainly created a personal devil 
in every one of his books. 

A good example of my meaning can be found, 
for instance, in such a character as Quilp. Dick- 
ens may, for all I know, have had originally some 
idea of describing Quilp as the bitter and unhappy 
cripple, a deformity whose mind is stunted along 
with his body. But if he had such an idea, he soon 
abandoned it. Quilp is not in the least unhappy. 
His whole picturesqueness consists in the fact that 
he has a kind of hellish happiness, an atrocious 
hilarity that makes him go bounding about like an 
indiarubber ball. Quilp is not in the least bitter; 
he has an unaffected gaiety, an expansiveness, an 
universality. He desires to hurt people in the 
same hearty way that a good-natured man desires 
to help them. He likes to poison people with the 
same kind of clamorous camaraderie with which 
an honest man likes to stand them drink. Quilp 
is not in the least stunted in mind; he is not in 
reality even stunted in body — his body, that is, 
does not in any way fall short of what he wants 
it to do. His smallness gives him rather the 
promptitude of a bird or the precipitance of a 
bullet. In a word, Quilp is precisely the devil of 



the Middle Ages; he belongs to that amazingly 
healthy period when even the lost spirits were 

This heartiness and vivacity in the villains of 
Dickens is worthy of note because it is directly 
connected with his own cheerfulness. This is a 
truth little understood in our time, but it is a very 
essential one. If optimism means a general ap- 
proval, it is certainly true that the more a man 
becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melan- 
choly man. If he manages to praise everything, 
his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to 
a polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is 
as good as the garden; he will mean that the 
garden is as dull as the marsh. He may force 
himself to say that emptiness is good, but he will 
hardly prevent himself from asking what is the 
good of such good. This optimism does exist — 
this optimism which is more hopeless than pessi- 
mism — this optimism which Is the very heart of 
hell. Against such an aching vacuum of joyless 
approval there is only one antidote — a sudden and 
pugnacious belief in positive evil. This world 
can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a 
battlefield. When we have defined and Isolated 
the evil thing, the colours come back into every- 
thing else. When evil things have become evil, 



good things, In a blazing apocalypse, become good. 
There are some men who are dreary because they 
do not believe In God; but there are many others 
who are dreary because they do not believe In the 
devil. The grass grows green again when we 
believe In the devil, the roses grow red again when 
we believe In the devil. 

No man was more filled with the sense of this 
bellicose basis of all cheerfulness than Dickens. 
He knew very well the essential truth, that the 
true optimist can only continue an optimist so long 
as he Is discontented. For the full value of this 
life can only be got by lighting; the violent take 
It by storm. And If we have accepted everything, 
we have missed something — war. This life of 
ours Is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable 
truce. And It appears strange to me that so few 
critics of Dickens or of other romantic writers 
have noticed this philosophical meaning In the 
undiluted villain. The villain Is not In the story 
to be a character; he Is there to be a danger — a 
ceaseless, ruthless, and uncompromising menace, 
like that of wild beasts or the sea. For the full 
satisfaction of the sense of combat, which every- 
where and always Involves a sense of equality. It 
is necessary to make the evil thing a man; but It 
Is not always necessary, It Is not even always ar- 



tlstlc, to make him a mixed and probable man. In 
any tale, the tone of which is at all symbolic, he 
may quite legitimately be made an aboriginal and 
infernal energy. He must be a man only in the 
sense that he must have a wit and will to be 
matched with the wit and will of the man chiefly 
fighting. The evil may be inhuman, but it must 
not be impersonal, which is almost exactly the 
position occupied by Satan in the theological 

But when all is said, as I have remarked before, 
the chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called 
cheerfulness, and some prefer to call optimism, is 
something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, 
after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure 
for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite 
eccentricity of existence. And this word " eccen- 
tricity " brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter 
than any other. It is, perhaps, the strongest mark 
of the divinity of man that he talks of this world 
as " a strange world," though he has seen no other. 
We feel that all there is is eccentric, though we do 
not know what is the centre. This sentiment of 
the grotesqueness of the universe ran through 
Dickens's brain and body like the mad blood of 
the elves. He saw all his streets in fantastic per- 
spectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top heavy 



and wild, he saw every man's nose twice as big as 
it was, and every man's eyes like saucers. And 
this was the basis of his gaiety — the only real basis 
of any philosophical gaiety. This world Is not to 
be justified as it is justified by the mechanical op- 
timists; It Is not to be justified as the best of all 
possible worlds. Its merit Is not that It Is orderly 
and explicable; Its merit is that It Is wild and 
utterly unexplained. Its merit Is precisely that 
none of us could have conceived such a thing, that 
we should have rejected the bare Idea of it as 
miracle and unreason. It is the best of all im- 
possible worlds. 




The hardest thing to remember about our own 
time, of course, is simply that it is a time; we all 
instinctively think of it as the Day of Judgment. 
But all the things in it which belong to it merely 
as this time will probably be rapidly turned up- 
side down; all the things that can pass will pass. 
It is not merely true that all old things are al- 
ready dead; it is also true that all new things are 
already dead; for the only undying things are the 
things that are neither new nor old. The more 
you are up with this year's fashion, the more (in 
a sense) you are already behind next year's. Con- 
sequently, in attempting to decide whether an au- 
thor will, as it is cantly expressed, live, it is neces- 
sary to have very firm convictions about what part, 
if any part, of man is unchangeable. And it is 
very hard to have this if you have not a religion ; 
or, at least, a dogmatic philosophy. 

The equality of men needs preaching quite as 
much as regards the ages as regards the classes 
of men. To feel infinitely superior to a man in 



the twelfth century Is just precisely as snobbish 
as to feel Infinitely superior to a man In the Old 
Kent Road. There are differences between the 
man and us, there may be superiorities in us over 
the man ; but our sin In both cases consists in think- 
ing of the small things wherein we differ when 
we ought to be confounded and Intoxicated by the 
terrible and joyful matters In which we are at 
one. But here again the difficulty always Is that 
the things near us seem larger than they are, and 
so seem to be a permanent part of mankind, when 
they may really be only one of Its parting modes of 
expression. Few people, for Instance, realize that 
a time may easily come when we shall see the 
great outburst of Science In the nineteenth century 
as something quite as splendid, brief, unique, and 
ultimately abandoned, as the outburst of Art at 
the Renascence. Few people realize that the gen- 
eral habit of fiction, of telling tales in prose, may 
fade, like the general habit of the ballad, of telling 
tales In verse, has for the time faded. Few people 
realize that reading and writing are only arbitrary, 
and perhaps temporary sciences, like heraldry. 

The Immortal mind will remain, and by that 
writers like Dickens will be securely judged. That 
Dickens will have a high place in permanent lite- 
rature there Is, I imagine, no prig surviving to 



deny. But though all prediction Is In the dark, 
I would devote this chapter to suggesting that his 
place In nineteenth century England will not only 
be high, but altogether the highest- At a certain 
period of his contemporary fame, an average 
Englishman would have said that there were at 
that moment in England about five or six able and 
equal novelists. He could have made a list, Dick- 
ens, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, 
George Eliot, perhaps more. Forty years or more 
have passed and some of them have slipped to a 
lower place. Some would now say that the high- 
est platform Is left to Thackeray and Dickens; 
some to Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot; 
some to Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte 
Bronte. I venture to offer the proposition that 
when more years have passed and more weeding 
has been effected, Dickens will dominate the whole 
England of the nineteenth century; he will be left 
on that platform alone. 

I know that this Is an almost Impertinent thing 
to assert, and that Its tendency Is to bring In those 
disparaging discussions of other writers In which 
Mr. Swinburne brilliantly embroiled himself In 
his suggestive study of Dickens. But my dis- 
paragement of the other English novelists Is 
wholly relative and not In the least positive. It !§ 



certain that men will always return to such a 
writer as Thackeray, with his rich emotional au- 
tumn, his feeling that life is a sad but sacred 
retrospect, in which at least we should forget noth- 
ing. It is not likely that wise men will forget 
him. So, for instance, wise and scholarly men do 
from time to time return to the lyrists of the 
French Renascence, to the delicate poignancy of 
Du Bellay: so they will go back to Thackeray. 
But I mean that Dickens will bestride and domi- 
nate our time as the vast figure of Rabelais domi- 
nates Du Bellay, dominates the Renascence and 
the world. 

Yet we put a negative reason first. The par- 
ticular things for which Dickens is condemned 
(and justly condemned) by his critics, are pre- 
cisely those things which have never prevented a 
man from being immortal. The chief of them is 
the unquestionable fact that he wrote an enormous 
amount of bad work. This does lead to a man 
being put below his place in his own time: it does 
not affect his permanent place, to all appearance, 
at all. Shakespeare, for Instance, and Words- 
worth wrote not only an enormous amount of bad 
work, but an enormous amount of enormously bad 
work. Humanity edits such writers' works for 
them. Virgil was mistaken In cutting out his In- 



ferior lines; we would have undertaken the job. 
Moreover in the particular case of Dickens there 
are special reasons for regarding his bad work 
as in some sense irrelevant. So much of It was 
written, as I have previously suggested, under a 
kind of general ambition that had nothing to do 
with his special genius; an ambition to be a public 
provider of everything, a warehouse of all human 
emotions. He held a kind of literary day of judg- 
ment. He distributed bad characters as punish- 
ments and good characters as rewards. My mean- 
ing can be best conveyed by one Instance out of 
many. The character of the kind old Jew In 
*^ Our Mutual Friend" (a needless and uncon- 
vincing character) was actually Introduced because 
some Jewish correspondent complains that the bad 
old Jew In " Oliver Twist " conveyed the sugges- 
tion that all Jews were bad. The principle Is so 
lightheadedly absurd that It Is hard to Imagine any 
literary man submitting to It for an Instant. If 
ever he Invented a bad auctioneer he must Imme- 
diately balance him with a good auctioneer; If he 
should have conceived an unkind philanthropist, 
he must on the spot, with whatever natural agony 
and toil, Imagine a kind philanthropist. The com- 
plaint Is frantic; yet Dickens, who tore people in 
pieces for much fairer complaints, liked this com^ 



plaint of his Jewish correspondent. It pleased 
him to be mistaken for a public arbiter: it pleased 
him to be asked (in a double sense) to judge 
Israel. All this Is so much another thing, a non- 
literary vanity, that there Is much less difficulty 
than usual in separating It from his serious genius : 
and by his serious genius, I need hardly say, I 
mean his comic genius. Such Irrelevant ambitions 
as this are easily passed over, like the sonnets of 
great statesmen. We feel that such things can 
be set aside, as the Ignorant experiments of men 
otherwise great, like the politics of Professor Tyn- 
dall or the philosophy of Professor Haeckel. 
Hence, I think, posterity will not care that Dick- 
ens has done bad work, but will know that he has 
done good. 

Again, the other chief accusation against Dick- 
ens was that his characters and their actions were 
exaggerated and Impossible. But this only meant 
that they were exaggerated and Impossible as 
compared with the modern world and with cer- 
tain writers (like Thackeray or Trollope) who 
were making a very exact copy of the manners 
of the modern world. Some people, oddly enough 
have suggested that Dickens has suffered or will 
suffer from the change of manners. Surely this 
i3 Irrational. It Is not the creators of the Im- 



possible who will suffer from the process of 
time: Mr. Bunsby can never be any more im- 
possible than he was when Dickens made him. 
The writers who will obviously suffer from time 
will be the careful and realistic writers ; the writers 
who have observed every detail of the fashion of 
this world which passeth away. It is surely ob- 
vious that there is nothing so fragile as a fact, 
that a fact flies away quicker than a fancy. A 
fancy will endure for two thousand years. For 
instance, we all have fancy for an entirely fear- 
less man, a hero : and the Achilles of Homer still 
remains. But exactly the thing we do not know 
about Achilles is how far he was possible. The 
realistic narrators of the time are all forgotten 
(thank God) ; so we cannot tell whether Homer 
slightly exaggerated or wildly exaggerated or did 
not exaggerate at all, the personal activity of a 
Mycenaean captain in battle: for the fancy has 
survived the facts. So the fancy of Podsnap may 
survive the facts of English commerce: and no 
one will know whether Podsnap was possible, but 
only know that he is desirable, like Achilles. 

The positive argument for the permanence of 
Dickens comes back to the thing that can only be 
stated and cannot be discussed: creation. He 
made things which nobody else could possibly 



make. He made Dick Swiveller In a very differ- 
ent sense to that In which Thackeray made Colonel 
Newcome. Thackeray's creation was observation : 
Dickens's was poetry, and Is therefore permanent. 
But there Is one other test that can be added. The 
immortal writer, I conceive, Is commonly he who 
does something universal In a special manner. I 
mean that he does something Interesting to all men 
In a way in which only one man or one land can 
do. Other men In that land, who do only what 
other men In other lands are doing as well, tend 
to have a great reputation In their day and to 
sink slowly into a second or a third or a fourth 
place. A parallel from war will make the point 
clearer. I cannot think that any one will doubt 
that, although Wellington and Nelson were al- 
ways bracketed, Nelson will steadily become more 
important and Wellington less. For the fame of 
Wellington rests upon the fact that he was a good 
soldier In the service of England, exactly as twenty 
similar men were good soldiers in the service of 
Austria or Prussia or France. But Nelson is the 
symbol of a special mode of attack, which is at 
once universal and yet specially English, the sea. 
Now Dickens is at once as universal as the sea 
and as English as Nelson. Thackeray and George 
Eliot and the other great figures of that great 



England, were comparable to Wellington in this, 
that the kind of thing they were doing, — realism, 
the acute study of intellectual things, numerous 
men in France, Germany, and Italy were doing 
as well or better than they. But Dickens was 
really doing something universal, yet something 
that no one but an Englishman could do. This is 
attested by the fact that he and Byron are the 
men who, like pinnacles, strike the eye of the con- 
tinent. The points would take long to study: yet 
they may take only a moment to indicate. No 
one but an Englishman could have filled his books 
at once with a furious caricature and with a posi- 
tively furious kindness. In more central countries, 
full of cruel memories of political change, cari- 
cature is always inhumane. No one but an Eng- 
lishman could have described the democracy as 
consisting of free men, but yet of funny men. In 
other countries where the democratic issue has 
been more bitterly fought, it is felt that unless 
you describe a man as dignified you are describing 
him as a slave. This is the only final greatness of 
a man; that he does for all the world what all 
the world cannot do for Itself. Dickens, I believe, 
did It. 

The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be 
much further troubled with the little artists who 



found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too 
clean for their delights. But we have a long way 
to travel before we get back to what Dickens 
meant: and the passage Is along a rambling Eng- 
lish road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick 
travelled. But this at least Is part of what he 
meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not 
interludes In our travel ; but that rather our travels 
are Interludes In comradeship and joy, which 
through God shall endure for ever. The Inn does 
not point to the road; the road points to the inn. 
And all roads point at last to an ultimate Inn, 
where we shall meet Dickens and all his charac- 
ters: and when we drink again It shall be from 
the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the 



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